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More and more medical gloves are coming from China as American protective gear manufacturers face difficulties. 2024-04-17 05:15:12

A dark-gray, 85-foot-tall building stands in southern Virginia, surrounded by grassy fields and blue mountains. This brand-new chemical plant was built during the pandemic to produce a special type of synthetic rubber needed to make medical examination gloves used by doctors and nurses every day.

But this plant hasn't produced anything yet.

Approximately 340 miles to the northeast in Maryland, another brand-new plant sits unfinished and idle. It was designed to turn synthetic rubber into medical gloves. The 735,000-square-foot building is fully equipped, but the machines inside it aren't fully set up.

Zero gloves have been made.

Further north, a glove manufacturing plant in New Hampshire acquired four high-speed production lines to quickly start making medical gloves. However, these lines are not fully assembled yet.

This company recently laid off over 100 employees.

Collectively, these glove manufacturing projects received about $290 million in state funding, which is part of the approximately $1.5 billion in federal government investments since the start of the pandemic to stimulate American production of medical masks, gowns, gloves, and raw materials for glove production. The goal was to reduce dependence on imports from Asia and help prevent a repeat of the dangerous shortages of these essential items during future health crises.

A factory for glove production in White County, Virginia, called Blue Star NBR, which is not operating at full capacity, was established to produce the raw materials needed for glove production in the United States. Blue Star NBR But a group of manufacturers says the efforts have stalled, and some American companies trying to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) are facing financial circumstances that threaten their survival.

"The commitments made by the U.S. government just three years ago appear to have been rescinded," company leaders wrote to lawmakers in Congress recently.

Greg Burel, who led the federal Strategic National Stockpile for a dozen years, told NPR that having some PPE production in the United States is "vitally important" to prepare for any event that disrupts normal supply chains and leaves countries around the world competing for these critical items.

When asked whether the nation is better off now than a few years ago in terms of reliable access to PPE in the event of a global emergency, Burel said, "No. I don't think so."

"What the government has done is made investments in expanding the industrial base," Burel said. "But the U.S. healthcare market doesn't have any other specific incentives to purchase the product produced by these expanded manufacturing capabilities."

A representative from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which worked with the Department of Defense on grants during the pandemic, said HHS efforts "strengthened our preparedness for future public health threats but maintained the gains we made." She added that "what our country has done over the last several years is difficult, important, and requires ongoing investment in domestic manufacturing."

The Lone U.S. Institution A close examination of one key medical item — medical examination gloves — illustrates why producing this protective gear in the U.S. has proven so challenging.

More than 100 billion basic examination gloves are used in the United States each year, and Scott Mayer, the CEO of Blue Star NBR, says nearly all of them, with the exception of a small fraction, come from Asia.

Even before the pandemic, Mayer dreamed of making medical gloves in the U.S. He believed that with automation, he could achieve low enough costs to compete with manufacturers in Malaysia, which had been the world's main supplier of gloves for many years.

"That's what we were trying to do," Mayer says, "but trying to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to make a product before the pandemic was a tall order."

However, when a novel coronavirus began spreading worldwide in 2020, hospitals faced catastrophic shortages of personal protective equipment, and doctors and nurses had to ration masks and gloves.

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