In Spring 2020, amid the peak of the coronavirus pandemic, N-95 respirators were one of the hottest commodities on the market.
Demand was through the roof so much that the public was asked to save the limited supply for frontline workers. A Kansas farmer saw that the need was so severe, he wrote a letter to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and sent the state a spare N-95 mask he had lying around. Cuomo called it "humanity at its best."
Nearly the entire supply chain for the masks was overseas, which only made getting orders more difficult and time-consuming. But now there are some American companies in the game, making the popular personal protective equipment.
However, some of those manufacturers are now asking: Where are the buyers?
Protective Health Gear is a Paterson manufacturer born of the pandemic. Entrepreneurs at the shop answered the call when governments were pleading for N-95 respirators made in the U.S.A.
"Made in the U.S.A is great, I think we need it. We need it now," said Evan Schulman, the COO of the company. Both President Biden and former president Trump both stated their desire to buy American, and Protective Health Gear said they would love to have the contracts. The company said buying the American products may even be a national security issue.
Nearly a year into the global health crisis, their factory can churn out millions of N-95s a month. But on the industrial floor, they're simply scratching their heads. CEO Brian Wolin said there's barely been a trickle of orders from governments that were so desperate before.
"We had thought that once we opened our doors, hearing the pleas of the government ... that we would be inundated with contracts, which we are not," Wolin said.
There are several reasons behind the sluggish demand, but much of it boils down to one straightforward thing: price. Foreign-made masks are generally cheaper by a few pennies. Governments and health systems were at once time willing to pay a king's ransom for a batch of the high-grade respirators. Now, they're bargain hunting.
Schulman said that governments may need to start thinking about providing subsidies for the American-made masks. He told NBC New York that without more government support, or at least more government business, there is a concern a homegrown factory like the one owned by Protective Health Gear could fade away as fast as it answered the call during the epic early supply shortage.
The company hopes that governments haven't forgotten about that dire supply disaster a year ago.
"If they don't support us, we could fall into the same exact situation again," said Wolin. "History always repeats itself, and we'd like it not to repeat itself in this particular instance."
Despite those concerns, the factory is doubling down on manufacturing the masks. They said they will be installing new equipment, and by the end of March, they expect to be producing four million masks per month.