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3M CEO Mike Roman vowed Wednesday that the company, the largest producer of medical face masks in the U.S., would ramp up production of the critical N95 mask for health-care workers on the frontline of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We've more than doubled our capacity now in the U.S. out of 35 million respirators a month," Roman told FOX Business' Maria Bartiromo. "We are going to expand from there. We are going to double it again as we go through this year. That's really the path to meeting that need on the frontline."
In two months, 3M has doubled global production of N95 masks -- and Roman said the company intends to double that number again within the year. Already, 3M has sent 500,000 respirators to hard-hit areas like Seattle and New York City, according to an earlier news release from the company. Without the respirators, doctors, nurses and other medical workers are at increased risk of contracting COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
After the SARS epidemic in 2002, when the company realized it wasn't fully equipped to handle massive demand, the 118-year-old Minnesota manufacturing giant began preparing for a pandemic like this, Roman said.
In January, Roman said the company recognized there would be a need for respirators and began ramping up production.
"We saw the crisis coming," he said. "We launched our emergency response team."
The Food and Drug Administration’s Emergency Use Authorization allowed 3M to use the industrial N95 masks in health care, opening the door for the company to ship the product to health-care workers, he said.
The critical shortage of medical supplies across the U.S., including testing swabs, protective masks, surgical gowns and hand sanitizer, can be tied to a sudden drop in imports, mostly from China.
Trade data shows the decline in shipments started in mid-February after the spiraling coronavirus outbreak in China led the country to shutter factories and disrupted ports. Some emergency rooms, hospitals and clinics in the U.S. have now run out of key medical supplies, while others are rationing personal protective equipment like gloves and masks.
The United States counts on receiving the vast majority of its medical supplies from China, where the coronavirus has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 3,200. When Chinese medical supply factories began coming back on line last month, their first priority was their own hospitals.
The government required makers of N95 masks to sell all or part of their production internally instead of shipping masks to the U.S.
The most recent delivery of medical-grade N95 masks arrived from China about a month ago, on Feb. 19. And as few as 13 shipments of non-medical N95 masks have arrived in the past month — half as many as arrived the same month last year. N95 masks are used in industrial settings, as well as hospitals, and filter out 95% of all airborne particles, including ones too tiny to be blocked by regular masks.
Governors across the country are becoming panicked as states run out of equipment. President Donald Trump has urged them to buy masks on the open market, but few if any are available.
The Associated Press contributed to this report