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Coronavirus Angst Driving Demand for Worker Safety Respirators

Feb. 18, 2020, 2:31 PM

Coronavirus fears could lead to shortages of respirators commonly worn by construction and factory workers as consumers buy them up and medical workers get high priority.

“We are increasing production at multiple facilities globally to address the increasing demand,” said Eric Krantz, a spokesman for Honeywell International Inc., a manufacturer of respirators. Other U.S. manufacturers include 3M Co. and Moldex-Metric Inc.

The respirators being grabbed off store shelves and ordered online by people worried about inhaling the coronavirus are the same respirators used by workers who labor in dusty conditions to avoid breathing in a host of airborne hazards from stone silica dust to wildfire ash.

The respirators look like a soft cup and fit snugly over a worker’s nose and mouth. They’re commonly called N95 respirators or masks because the devices meet a federal health standard for filtering out 95% of airborne particles.

Boosting Production

Industrial supply and safety company W.W. Grainger Inc. is seeing higher demand for masks and related supplies due to the spread of coronavirus and is working with suppliers to keep pace, said Tony Macrito, Grainger’s senior manager for media relations.

“In times like this, we do prioritize the sales of personal protective equipment like N95 respirators for government and health-care customers, to help ensure first responders and first receivers have what they need to do their jobs,” Macrito said.

At The Home Depot stores, customers are limited to purchasing 10 filters each in order to serve as many people as possible, said company spokeswoman Christina Cornell.

“Our merchandising and supply chain teams are working hard to replenish these items as quickly as possible,” Cornell added.

As of Feb. 14, U.S. construction companies and industry groups contacted by Bloomberg Law said they hadn’t experienced or heard from members about running out of N95 respirators.

Manufacturers wouldn’t discuss numbers, but acknowledged surging worldwide purchases.

3M issued a statement in January that it was increasing production at U.S., Europe, and Asia plants. “Global demand for supplies used to treat and help protect people, such as respirators, is currently exceeding supply,” the company said.

One issue for worldwide manufacturers is that some Asian countries such as China and India, where many factories are located, are restricting the export of respirators and giving first priority to their own residents.

Controlling Demand

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has sought to tamp down the unneeded use of N95 respirators.

Some agency partners are reporting higher than usual demand for N95 respirators, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said in a Feb. 12 briefing.

Some of the demand may be unwarranted. “CDC does not currently recommend the use of face masks for the general public,” said Messonnier. “This virus is not spreading in the community.”

To prevent health-care facilities from exhausting their supplies of respirators, the CDC recommended during a Feb. 11 briefing several methods to conserve N95 supplies such as workers reusing respirators and giving staff members with the highest risk of infection from patients the first priority for using N95 devices.

If commercially available respirators are in short supply, the Department of Health and Human Services can distribute gear from the Strategic National Stockpile, a supply of drugs and medical devices, including respirators, set aside for responses to large-scale disasters and disease outbreaks.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bruce Rolfsen in Washington at BRolfsen@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com

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