The White House on Thursday stepped into the fragmented market for disposable virus-filtering N95 masks, moving to connect medical supply companies with mask manufacturers who say they are loaded with inventory but can’t find buyers — even in the midst of a pandemic in which doctors and nurses are desperate for the protective gear.
President Biden’s coronavirus response coordinator, Jeffrey D. Zients, intervened after reading about the mask manufacturers’ dilemma on Thursday in an article in The New York Times.
“We will do all we can to get frontline workers the personal protective equipment they need, including breaking down barriers for N95 manufacturers,” Mr. Zients said in a statement, adding that he had “reached out to all of the major medical distributors to start connecting them with these new N95 mask manufacturers.”
A senior administration official said members of Mr. Zients’ team had talked with three top medical suppliers: AmerisourceBergen, Cardinal Health and McKesson Corporation.
Nearly two dozen small American companies have recently jumped into the business of making N95s but are sitting on extra supply, in part because of ingrained purchasing habits of hospital systems, competition from China and bans on mask advertising by companies like Facebook and Google, which were trying to thwart price gouging early in the pandemic.
Mr. Zients said the White House intended to work with “online retailers to ensure they are making more of these products available to their customers.”
One mask manufacturer, Luis Arguello Jr., said he had 30 million masks for sale. After the pandemic exposed a huge need for protective equipment and China closed its inventory to the world, his family-run business, DemeTech, began making masks in its factories in Miami. It invested tens of millions of dollars in new machinery and then navigated a nine-month federal approval process that allows the masks to be marketed.
“It’s insane that we can’t get these masks to the people who desperately need them,” he said.
The mask shortage has been one of the most visible failures of the federal response to the pandemic. One mask company executive, Mike Bowen of Prestige Ameritech, testified on Capitol Hill last year that he had been warning for years that the United States was too dependent on China for mask supply.
He raised alarms again in a letter to a Trump administration official last February, a month before President Donald J. Trump declared the coronavirus a national emergency. “Please ask your associates to convey the gravity of this national security issue to the White House,” Mr. Bowen wrote.