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Opinion: The Time to Act on American-Made PPE Is Now

How prepared are we for future pandemics in the wake of a once-in-a-generation health security threat that continues to roil global economies and supply chains? In at least one critical area, we need to prepare better.

We have been slow to learn one important lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic: the urgent need to make personal protective equipment (PPE) here in the United States. 

While there are some encouraging signs that key government agencies are finally taking notice—a recent government-sponsored Make PPE in America Industry Day was a positive step—it has been one and a half years since critical legislation instituting buy-American policies took effect. In fact, the bill went into “effect” in February 2022—but some agencies have yet to comply with the new law. This has come at a significant detriment to the U.S. industry and threatened our long-term supply chain resiliency. Implementing this new law effectively and immediately is critical to this industry and to our nation’s long-term health and national security. 

Let us remember. When the pandemic began, we were overly reliant on foreign suppliers of PPE who withheld shipments or overcharged us. Some products were stuck on slow boats from China or under export controls. We scrambled to find sufficient supplies of masks for all of us and gowns, gloves, and other safety gear for healthcare workers. Having enough PPE was a daunting challenge.

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American textile and apparel manufacturers stepped up. Many factories retooled production lines to pump out PPE. But, after coming to the rescue and investing heavily, many of those same factories are now sitting with idle equipment and others have exited the market altogether. As a result, we could now be vulnerable again unless the United States government helps.  

Hospitals have gone back to buying cheap, often shoddy Chinese-made PPE. Unfortunately, reverting to foreign suppliers is often not safe. A key study by the ECRI Institute found that half of imported medical gowns and three-quarters of imported KN95 masks fail to meet safety standards.

Meanwhile, in a quest to capture the U.S. market, China again reportedly began dumping PPE in the U.S. at prices below the cost of production—sometimes at one-tenth of what it costs an American company to make. That type of illegal dumping drives U.S. companies out of the PPE business and again leaves the country vulnerable.

There have also been targeted attempts by lawmakers to address the growing threat. Last June, Senators Tammy Baldwin (D-WI) and Mike Braun (R-IN) urged Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo to investigate China’s alleged dumping. 

We must support a healthy domestic industry. The infrastructure legislation passed by Congress in November 2021 included a provision known as the “Make PPE in America Act,” which requires that all PPE purchased by the Departments of Health and Human Services, Homeland Security, and Veterans Affairs must be made by manufacturers in the United States using domestic components. But 18 months after it became law, some agencies have not adopted the bill’s all-American provisions and it’s hard to understand why.  

Manufacturers have idled capacity and need to know the government’s intentions to plan accordingly. Inconsistent purchases and demand signals to replenish these emergency supplies have left manufacturers on standby. 

Decisions by healthcare providers and the government’s inaction and lack of clarity leave the domestic PPE industry questioning the viability of remaining in the business. 

Manufacturers worked hard and invested heavily to meet the nation’s needs at a critical time, only to be ignored now, even as the pandemic continues. Once burned, they are less likely to come to the rescue again. I applaud the administration for hosting “Make PPE in America” day to hear from industry directly and to engage in these important conversations—it’s critical to what happens in an expedited fashion moving forward.

Fortunately, many pieces are in place to meet our PPE needs. Manufacturers are ready to work with the government and hospitals to ensure we’re prepared. But we need a demand signal from the government and the private sector to make that happen—and we need it now before it’s too late.

Beyond full implementation of the “Make PPE in America Act” and the issuance of contracts to help fulfill U.S. government needs, the administration and Congress should also explore ways to encourage healthcare providers to purchase high-quality American-made PPE to ensure we have industrial capabilities and aren’t left vulnerable again for the essential products we need. 

We all wish that the coronavirus would disappear. And, while we hope that there will never be another global pandemic, we know that’s an unrealistic dream. Instead, we should learn from our experience and ensure we are prepared with the solid and secure domestic PPE manufacturing base we need to fight health challenges for years to come.

Kim Glas is the president and CEO of the National Council of Textile Organizations and is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary for Textiles and Apparel at the U.S. Department of Commerce.