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America's largest face mask manufacturer can't keep up with coronavirus demand

U.S. economy takes hit in wake of coronavirus spread

Washington — As international markets are left gasping from the effects of the spreading coronavirus, one American business is struggling to keep pace with the skyrocketing demand for its products.

"It's a madhouse," said Mike Bowen, executive vice president and partner of Prestige Ameritech, the nation's largest surgical mask manufacturer. "We are going as fast as we can."

Bowen's Texas company, which makes face masks and respirators to protect from germs and filter the air, typically has to pitch their products to hospitals and caregivers, not turn them away. Their American-made products are more expensive than those made by their overseas competitors.

Bowen estimates that demand for the company's more expensive products is about 1,000 times higher than what it is under normal conditions. Phone calls asking about the masks and respirators used to be a rarity. Now the company fields about 100 calls a day.

They've heard from hospitals and other health care organizations, groups of concerned citizens, worried mothers, even the company's own competitors, all asking for the products they can't keep on the shelves. There is no stockpile, Bowen explained, because of the seemingly insurmountable need for more masks. Daily order requests since the outbreak, he said, now range from 1 to 100 million face masks and respirators, requests his small business of roughly 100 employees can't fulfill.

Prestige Ameritech does not ship its products internationally, but Bowen said its reach has transcended borders in the last 30 days, with the company selling 1 to 2 million masks to buyers who then sent them to others in China and Hong Kong.

Coronavirus: Hong Kong residents wear new face masks from Prestige Ameritech
Hong Kong residents express their gratitude for a shipment of 60 Prestige Ameritech masks from citizens in the U.S.  Courtesy of Prestige Ameritech

And although Bowen said his company has yet to receive a request from the federal government, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar told senators Tuesday that the nation has an immense need for the very products Prestige Ameritech manufactures. Asked if the government has enough surgical masks and N95 respirators to protect healthcare workers combatting the coronavirus, Azar responded, "Of course not ... This is an unprecedented potential severe health challenge globally."

Despite this unprecedented challenge, Bowen said, his company has yet to increase its staff or extend its production times, citing the uncertainty that comes with outbreaks like the current one. Hiring more staff to work longer hours may help to meet the growing needs of the nation's health care workers, but if the outbreak subsides,  he explained, his businesses would be forced to downsize.

"We're caught between a rock and a hard place," he said. "We don't like to lay people off." 

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