Cape Girardeaus mask manufacturer laments desire for 'cheap goods'

Workers at Patriot Medical Devices pack face masks into boxes that hold 50 masks Nov. 18, 2020, in Cape Girardeau.
Southeast Missourian file

Rick Needham opened a mask-making facility, Patriot Medical Devices, in summer 2020 at 1823 Rust Ave. in Cape Girardeau.

At the factory's peak, three shifts employed more than 60 people making three-ply surgical masks.

Now, Needham told the Southeast Missourian, "We're running at less than a single shift" and he seems clear about the primary reason for the change.

"The U.S. is addicted to cheap goods, unfortunately, and we're not getting the buy-in from American customers that we anticipated," Needham said Friday from his office in California. "The Chinese are subsidizing masks at below our material cost and that makes it very tough to compete."

Patriot Medical Devices sells three-ply masks in various colors ó white, blue, black and gray ó in packages of 50 for $29.99. A package may be ordered online at www.patriotmedicaldevices.com.

Industry-wide problem

The nation's largest mask manufacturer, Florida-based DemeTech, shares Needham's concerns.

"The industry is in a situation where we are needed, there are shortages of masks, but we're all laying off our employees and sitting on huge inventories of products we can't sell," said Luis Arguello Jr., DemeTech's vice president.

Indeed, unsold inventory of current stock forced Needham to abandon a previously announced intention for PMD to shift into the production of N95 masks at the Cape Girardeau plant by the second quarter of 2021.

Cloth masks, the most inexpensive of face coverings, are more commonly worn now since the availability of vaccines in the U.S.

Health experts quoted by National Public Radio said cloth ó even thick fabric ó masks won't work against the current COVID variant.

"Cloth masks are not going to cut it with omicron," said Linsey Marr, a medical specialist at Virginia Tech, adding omicron spreads more quickly and efficiently than other known coronavirus variants and is extremely transmissible.

Duke University researchers conducted a 2021 study aimed at discovering the most effective mask to deter COVID. N95 masks were rated No. 1 in blocking 99% of respiratory droplets. Surgical masks, including the ASTM Level 3 three-ply face coverings made by PMD, were rated as second-best.

Hope

The American Mask Manufacturers Association (AMMA) said congressional passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill holds out some promise for the industry.

The bill, signed by President Joe Biden on Nov. 15, includes a provision requiring the federal government to enter into long-term contracts with U.S. companies to buy personal protective equipment (PPE). The legislation allows the U.S. to sell masks and other medical supplies in its current stockpile to public and private entities. AMMA is worried, however, about exceptions in the COVID-19 relief bills that allow states to use federal funds to buy masks from foreign companies.

In a letter to Biden dated May 13, AMMA called for "immediate help" against what the trade group called "unfair trade practices by foreign nations," most notably, China.

"There are three to six cents of raw materials in every surgical mask produced and that price is the same everywhere in the world. Yet somehow, we are seeing Chinese masks sold for less than one cent of raw material cost here in the United States. If this remains unchanged, 54% of our production will go offline in 60 days and 84.6% in less than a year," the letter reported.

Needham's stated business plan includes relationships with ongoing customers ó clients whom he said will need PMD's products post-pandemic: hospitals, government entities, Veterans Affairs, first responders and private businesses.

Message

Needham said the name of his company, Patriot Medical Devices, is indicative of what he hopes U.S. citizens and the business community will do in the future.

"Other countries often have little to no laws protecting the right of their workers. These factories exploit child labor, pay unfair wages and can have extremely dangerous working conditions. We need a laser-eye focus on where we are buying masks and gloves and I hope our country will vigilantly support American PPE manufacturing," said Needham in a PMD handout.

"My message is still the same ó buy American," he said last week.

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