The real importance of the run on masks at this moment may be that it is emblematic of broader, uncomfortable truths about outbreak preparedness. Supplies of many basic medical products like masks and respirators rely on international trade, which becomes unpredictable during emergency scenarios. Imports could be cut off during a pandemic, either by border shutdowns or rising demand within a country. In the U.S., for example, only 5 percent of surgical masks purchased annually are made here.
State health departments do recommend that hospitals keep an emergency store of respirators, but only enough for very short periods. The New York Department of Health advises hospitals to keep “at least a three-day supply of N95 masks readily available for use in a variety of emergency situations.” This assumes that more will be available for purchase. But there’s no guarantee that will be true: During the 2009 flu outbreak, hospitals ran low on masks. CDC keeps a national stockpile for emergencies, but the latest reported numbers are lower than other countries’. The 2009 flu used up more than 75 percent of the stockpile.
Brown says that one of the people trying to place a bulk order with her was a buyer for a medical-device supplier, which alarmed her. “The boutique sector is totally unequipped to meet the needs of the population in an emergency,” says Brown.