ST. PAUL — President Donald Trump put Maplewood, Minn.-based 3M on blast late Thursday, April 2, after ordering the conglomerate to increase its stockpile of N95 respirator masks, said to be needed desperately for health care workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic.
Trump's order, made under the federal Defense Production Act, bars 3M from exporting U.S.-made masks to Canadian and Latin American markets. The president criticized the company for moving masks out of the country in a tweet sent Thursday night, saying "they will have a big price to pay!"
"We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks," Trump said.
We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. “P Act” all the way. Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 3, 2020
The order asks 3M to hew closely to the direction of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which it grants "any and all authority available" to secure as many masks as possible.
In a Friday morning, April 3, statement, 3M said the order will allow it to increase the number of masks it imports from overseas subsidiaries and partners. According to the statement, the company and the Chinese government reached a deal earlier this week that will see more than 10 million masks manufactured there by 3M sent to the U.S.
But to cease exports, the company said, would pose "humanitarian implications" and could potentially backfire.
"Ceasing all export of respirators produced in the United States would likely cause other countries to retaliate and do the same, as some have already done," the company said. "If that were to occur, the net number of respirators being made available to the United States would actually decrease."
N95 respirator masks and other forms of personal protective equipment have reportedly been in short supply throughout the pandemic. Typically used in construction and manufacturing settings, the masks filter out airborne particulate matter and are sometimes designed for use in healthcare.
Though not recommended by federal health and safety agencies for civilian use, such N95 masks can be used by medical workers to protect themselves and their patients from the "transfer of microorganisms, body fluids, and particulate material." They differ from surgical masks, which are looser fitting and sometimes seen worn in public.
The lack of masks in U.S. hospitals calls to mind the concerns of health officials who say the rapid spread of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, threatens to overwhelm the country's healthcare system. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have since late January confirmed more than 200,000 cases of the disease, which by Thursday killed approximately 4,500 Americans.
3M and other companies targeted by the Korean War-era defense act will be required to prioritize federal government contracts before those of other clients. Trump invoked the act to enlist American industries in the fight against the pandemic.
One factor in the respirator shortage is their purported appearance on domestic and foreign resale markets at exorbitant prices, something 3M has vowed to crack down on.
Analysts are also unsure that the order will sufficiently compel other countries, themselves embroiled in the pandemic, to hand over their masks. In a statement, analytics and consulting company GlobalData said that even if 3M can curtail the secondary market, "it may not be possible for the US to purchase enough" respirators.