Why Did The Price Of Masks Surge During The Pandemic?

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One of the biggest problems facing America, during the coronavirus epidemic, was the shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and other safety equipment. There were reports of Amazon vendors selling their masks at $1000 for a pair of 15 N95’s. Masks became such a hard-to-find commodity, that even healthcare workers were forced to reuse their masks multiple days in a row. Essential workers, such as grocery-store and supermarket workers, who interact with thousands of shoppers each day, also faced challenges accessing masks. The price surged rapidly, and the question is: How did we allow this to happen?

The answer is partially due to the fact we outsourced most mask manufacturing to China, and that the Strategic National Stockpile ran out of equipment – this triggered a rapid shortage in masks/PPE which started a worldwide trade war and made the price of masks surge. China, the country that manufacturers most of our medical supplies, stopped shipping large supplies of masks to fight their own battle at home. The US government also had a Strategic National Stockpile of masks (located in warehouses throughout the US), but this stockpile ran out as early as April.

What Caused The Federal Stockpile Shortage

While the Federal stockpile was subject to a lot of criticism, and likely the main cause of price surges during the Covid-19 pandemic, there is one obvious question: How did the wealthiest country in the history of the world fail to accumulate a stockpile large enough to fight a pandemic flu? The answer: Previous pandemics. 

The Strategic National Stockpile was large enough to supply all US hospitals without any issues during the 2009 swine flu pandemic. The Obama administration handed out 85 million N95 respirator masks during that pandemic. This was seen as a successful response to the pandemic. The problem was that the government assumed we wouldn’t face such a pandemic again, and never fully replenished the stockpile.

During the first days of the coronavirus outbreak in the US in February 2020, the Federal stockpile only contained 12 million N95 respirator masks – almost 8x less than it had at the start of the swine flu outbreak 10 years ago. The Internal Safety Equipment Association estimated that healthcare workers would actually require 3.5 billion masks for this pandemic, and the stockpile couldn’t be relied upon to supply US healthcare workers, which meant extraordinary measures had to be taken.

The Strategic National Stockpile is funded via congressional appropriations – similar to many other organizations that purchase Federal equipment. Congress had a very limited amount of money to spend, and only the officials in charge of the stockpile dictate how to spend those funds.  The officials in question purchased hundreds of millions of masks in the early 2000s, which quickly dried up by the end of the decade. Funding for additional purchases were also withdrawn, leaving them unprepared for future pandemics.

Conclusion

The Federal stockpile was never actually meant to serve as a “national savor”. The Federal Stockpile’s responsibility was to supply the healthcare worker’s needs for a pandemic that lasts only a single month. Congress never allocated enough money for a multi-month pandemic. The officials in charge hoped that hospitals were going to build their own stockpiles. 

However, most hospitals didn’t create stockpiles in order to save cash flow. In this regard, both private hospitals and the government came up short and unprepared. Once the big hospitals ran out of supplies, so did many pharmacies – and this triggered the price to surge.