For decades, American policymakers didn’t much care where medical supplies were manufactured, and for a long time, it didn’t much matter.

Then came COVID-19, and the U.S. found itself short on just about all the important equipment and supplies it desperately needed.

The shortages were part of the federal government’s failure to adequately prepare for the virus-based epidemic every expert saw coming, and they cost lives. One way or another, we can’t let those mistakes be repeated.

Through one company, Maine has seen firsthand how the shortages affected the response to the virus. Puritan Medical Products in Guilford is one of just two major manufacturers of COVID-19 testing swabs in the world.

Supplies from the other company, based in Italy, were cut off early in the pandemic when the virus shut that country down. Even as the U.S. federal government moved quickly to approve new COVID-19 tests, there were not enough swabs available to conduct them, seriously hindering the country’s ability to track and isolate COVID-19.

It wasn’t until April that the Trump administration reached out to Puritan to increase production. After receiving funding and guaranteed federal contracts, the latest announced this week for $51.2 million, Puritan, along with Cianbro Corp., has raised production in Guilford and will soon have two new factories in Pittsfield turning out tens of millions of swabs per month, adding hundreds of new jobs in the process.

It is quite impressive what Puritan and Cianbro have accomplished. But with this, as with most things COVID-related, the federal government started unprepared and moved slow, a fatal combination.

The same happened with high-quality N95 masks, the Associated Press reported earlier this month. Like other medical supplies, production of the masks moved overseas in search of lower production costs. Once, the vast majority of the N95 masks used in the U.S. were made here, but by the start of the pandemic, production had shifted so that 90% were made internationally.

An Obama-era study found that because nearly all medical supplies were made overseas, the government needed to buy and stockpile protective equipment in preparation for a pandemic. A 2019 exercise by the Trump administration found the same thing: a shortage of personal protective equipment that would be difficult to fix during a pandemic.

Neither warning was heeded, nor were warnings from a small U.S. mask manufacturer who also saw the shortage coming. As a result, when the PPE was needed, it wasn’t there.

The results were catastrophic as shortages in health care and other work settings allowed the virus to spread. A Harvard study found health care workers who didn’t have adequate PPE had a 30% greater chance of infection than those with enough.

N95 masks are still in short supply, putting health care workers at risk and raising doubts about whether the U.S. will meet future requirements for medical supplies.

Millions of syringes and needles will be needed to administer the coming vaccine, and the supply chain with those has been messed up too. The Trump administration says syringes and needles have been ordered, but has been quiet on other important details.

In the short term, Americans need to be reassured that the supply chain problems are not still being ignored.

In the long term, the U.S. should bring the manufacturing of medical supplies back to our shore, using federal contracts to ensure that life-saving products are here when Americans need them.

It will take time, and investments like those made in Puritan and Cianbro. But whatever money is spent will come back to us tenfold during the next nationwide medical emergency.


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