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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is falling far short of its goal of having 300 million N95 respirators available in time for the flu season, according to internal documents reviewed by Yahoo News. Though the supply of N95 respirators has greatly increased in the last several months, it is at a little less than one-third of promised levels.
N95 respirators protect wearers against the coronavirus better than cloth or surgical face masks; the name refers to their ability to filter out 95 percent, or all but the smallest, of particles. The masks are critical to people in medical settings and frontline occupations.
According to a briefing document dated Sept. 25 and sent to senior officials in the Department of Health and Human Services, the government now has 87.6 million N95 masks available, far short of the 300 million promised several months ago.
The administration has also stockpiled 49 million KN95 masks, which are certified by China, and are potentially less reliable. A recent study of KN95s imported to the U.S. found that 70 percent of the masks didn’t meet the required filtration standards.
N95 masks, on the other hand, are approved by the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
In April, amid shortages of N95s, the Food and Drug Administration issued an emergency authorization for the Chinese-certified version while the U.S. ramped up domestic production.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services defended the Trump administration’s efforts to stockpile sufficient quantities of face masks, saying it has moved “with deliberate and determined speed to ensure supplies and equipment are available for frontline U.S. healthcare workers.”
In recognition of fierce competition between individual states for personal protective equipment, as well as between states and the federal government, the spokesperson said the department was “taking care not to disrupt the commercial supply chain.”
A shortage of respirators — on both federal and state levels — could prose problems in the months ahead, as the coronavirus pandemic and influenza season could potentially lead to a rush on hospitals through the fall and winter. States have been preparing for precisely that scenario, which could be exacerbated by reopening plans that are continuing to move forward.
The federal government stepped in late in the spring, promising that both the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Strategic National Stockpile would have adequate protective equipment. The days of doctors sitting through seminars on how to sew masks or posting YouTube videos on how to reuse respirators, which are intended for single use, would be relegated to memory.
There were 13 million N95 masks in federal coffers in the winter of 2020, when the pandemic first arrived in the United States.
On a press call with reporters on May 14, an administration official sounded confident. “We have an aspiration to eventually have a billion of those,” he said of N95 masks. He quickly acknowledged that the federal government wasn’t even close, even as he argued it was in much better shape than when the pathogen caught the nation unprepared in February.
“We do anticipate having 300 million” by the fall, the senior administration official said. “So you can do the math: 13 million to 300 million.”
The White House declined to comment on the latest stockpile numbers.
While the supply of N95s has increased significantly, it may still pale in the face of intensified demand if there is a spike in cases and hospitalizations in the months ahead, as many expect there will be. A survey conducted earlier this month found that 38 percent of nurses say their workplaces have either few N95 respirators or no respirators at all.
The shortage continues in part because manufacturers in the United States lack the ability to produce the kinds of meltblown textiles needed to manufacture N95 masks. Instead of using the compulsory powers of the Defense Production Act, which allows for private industry to be commandeered for the sake of national security, the Trump administration has tried to coax manufacturers into helping meet supply shortfalls. They have responded, but it has not been enough.
Jana Winter contributed reporting to this story.
Cover thumbnail photo: Evan Vucci/AP
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