Post #598: Mask shortage?

Posted on April 3, 2020

Following up on the last post, I used to be self-employed as a health economist.  And so I still get a lot of business-to-business emails, from folks who think that I was, in fact, a “real” business.

You know this N95 mask shortage that’s happening now?  Well, as it turns out, that might have been the result, at least in part, of our shooting ourselves in the foot.

The FDA would not allow Chinese-made N95-equivalent masks (“KN95”) to be used in US hospitals.  If you look at the specs for N95 and KN95, they are virtually identical.  I believe the FDA’s concern was insecure supply chain (i.e., you might get sold inferior knock-offs).

But as of late yesterday, they changed their minds.  Apparently after thousands of people yelled at them — including circulating a petition — for being stupid.

Read it on Buzzfeed.

So, luckily, they’ve now figured out that, eh, maybe that wasn’t so smart.  And they are allowing them to be used on a caveat emptor basis.  They are still not certified for use in US hospitals.  But if you want to use them, you can.

Today I got an email, from a well-known (i.e., not fly-by-night) company whose line of business is helping other companies sell to the Federal government.  They’re deal-makers, for want of a better term.  Among other things, they’re connected with an Ohio mask manufacturer.  But in the meantime, they’re in the business of arranging import of KN95 masks from China.

I’m just going to summarize their apparently legitimate offer.

Anything under 100,000 KN95s, they’ll charge you $3/mask, and get them to you in 3 to 5 days.  Same offer on N95s, they just cost twice as much.

Want a half-million KN95 masks?  Under $3 each, takes 5 to 10 days.  Half-million N95s?  Twice as much, 7 to 14 days.

If you want, say, 10 million or more, they’re slightly cheaper, but it’s going to take two or three weeks to fill the first million.  And they’re limiting you to 5 million per month.

If you have priority from the US government, let them know, and they’ll make sure US Customs doesn’t hold up your shipment.

And it’s a fair bet that these aren’t the only guys who were ready to go the instant the FDA backed off of its ban.

And, while those prices seem high to me, they don’t seem extraordinary.

For the time being, you, the consumer, should still refrain from buying them.  Leave them for the medical professionals.

But I expect the shortage to begin easing.  Better late than never.

What has me truly irked, of course, is how this dovetails with the CDC decision not to recommend masks in public.  If you think about it, if these two agencies had done this differently, there’s some chance that we could have all been wearing KN95 masks whenever we were out in public.  Or, maybe, all the people in New York City could have been wearing KN95s whenever they were in public.   Maybe it’s not too late to make that happen.  Bet that would have altered the course of this some.

Now more than ever. it’s time to keep reverse Roemer’s Law in mind:  A bed not filled is a bed not built.

If not for the inertia of the CDC and the FDA.

Just passing this along FWIW.  If you know somebody who needs a few million masks, email me, I’ll forward that offer to them.