Industrial firm 3M is working to solve a shortage of its N95 medical masks, which are in desperately short supply amid the COVID-19 crisis.
"3M is committed to combating price gouging, fraud and counterfeit activity in connection with its products and the COVID-19 outbreak," officials with 3M in St. Paul, Minn., said in a news release.
According to an N95 specification sheet on the 3M website, five of the six main components of the mask use some type of plastic. Its straps are made from thermoplastic elastomers, the nose foam is polyurethane and the filter is polypropylene fiber. The mask's shell and cover both are made of polyester. The shelf life of the 3M N95 mask is five years from the date of manufacture.
3M has received reports of people fraudulently representing themselves as being affiliated with 3M and selling its products at grossly inflated prices, they added. The firm also has received reports of people selling counterfeit products falsely claimed to be from 3M and falsely claiming to manufacture 3M products.
"3M is working to protect the public from counterfeiting and price gouging on critical health care supplies, including the respirators and masks that are essential to our country's health care personnel," Chairman and CEO Mike Roman said.
"3M will take decisive action against those seeking to take illegal and unethical advantage of the COVID-19 outbreak," he added. "We are working with law enforcement authorities around the world on this matter, including federal, state and local authorities in the U.S."
3M is also working with large internet sellers on a coordinated plan to identify and remove counterfeiters and price gougers from their sites and refer them to the appropriate law enforcement authorities.
Since late January, 3M has doubled its global output rate of N95 masks to almost 100 million per month. That production total includes 35 million made in the U.S., with more than 90 percent of those designated for health care workers. The remaining masks will go to energy, food and pharmaceutical companies.
In late March, 3M sent more than 500,000 N95 masks from its plant in Aberdeen, S.D., to New York and Seattle, two areas heavily impacted by COVID-19. Officials said that 3M is ready to expedite additional shipments across the country.
3M also makes N95 masks at plants in Europe, Asia and Latin America. The firm is operating at maximum production for those products and has accelerated investments to expand global capacity. Roman said 3M expects to nearly double its capacity again — to almost 2 billion — within the next 12 months.
3M has created a new hotline to call for information on how to help identify authentic 3M products and to ensure products are from 3M authorized distributors. That number, in the U.S. and Canada, is 800-426-8688.
Officials said that 3M has not changed its prices for 3M respirators as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. The masks typically sell for less than $1 each, but in recent weeks have been selling for as much as $7 or $8 per mask, according to published reports.
"We have been and will continue to work actively to eliminate price gouging by resellers of 3M respirators," officials said. They added that to avoid counterfeit 3M respirators, users should only buy respirators in 3M packaging with model-specific user instructions accompanying the product. 3M respirators should not be sold individually or without packaging and user instructions. Products that have missing straps, strange odors, blocked valves, or misspelled words are likely not authentic 3M respirators, they added.
Roman also said that U.S. production of N95 masks is expected to reach a rate of 50 million per month in June, a 40 percent increase from current levels.
"It's also important to understand how we are prioritizing and shipping products to serve the most urgent needs in this pandemic," he added. "In the U.S., more than 90 percent of our N95 respirators are going to health care and public health, with the remaining deployed to other critical industries such as energy, food and pharmaceuticals."
Roughly 80 percent of 3M's U.S. supply directed toward health care and public health "is flowing rapidly through our health care distributors — primarily consisting of six large and well-known companies with incredible logistical capabilities — which is the quickest and most effective method of getting those supplies into the hands of workers," Roman said.
The remaining 20 percent is being directed to the federal government, he added, with the largest portion going to FEMA, which will allocate based on its determination of the most urgent needs.
"The prioritization and distribution of all of our N95 respirators are being coordinated in close partnership with FEMA," Roman said. "We are directly embedded with them at their headquarters to help streamline decision-making and action."
"This is not just a 3M challenge; it's an industrywide challenge," he added. "Even with 3M's accelerated production combined with capacity from other manufacturers, the reality is that demand for N95 respirators is much higher than the industries' ability to deliver."
"That is why we continue to explore innovative partnerships and solutions to help protect our health care workers in this extraordinary time. Given the high use rate of N95 respirators, 3M engineers are right now collaborating with several sterilization companies to find a way for hospitals to safely clean, reuse and extend the life of these respirators."
3M also on March 24 announced plans to work with Ford Motor Co. and GE Healthcare to make N95 masks at a Ford plant in Redford Township, Mich. Ford will use fans from F-150 pickup seats, portable tool battery packs and 3D printed parts to assemble the respirators, officials said.
Ford said it initially would be able to make up to 1,000 respirators per month, helping 3M boost production of the respirators. Ford also plans to produce up to 100,000 face shields per week, also in Michigan. Roughly 75,000 of these shields are expected to be finished this week, and more than 100,000 face shields per week will be produced at Ford subsidiary Troy Design & Manufacturing's facilities in Plymouth, Mich.
Regarding the price gouging, Roman said that "as disappointing as this unethical activity is, it is equally heartening to see so many step up to help the world get through this crisis — including the many retailers and 3M customers that have voluntarily contributed or donated their excess stockpiles of respirators and other key supplies."
"We'll get through this together, and 3M and our people will continue to do all we can to protect lives and defeat this disease."