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Flu Fears Mean 24/7 Production for Mask Makers

Workers are fighting the flu around the clock at the Alpha Pro Tech factory in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Since last spring's outbreak of the H1N1 Influenza Virus, also known as swine flu, orders for the company's N95 respirator masks have soared, and demand is growing with the onset of the fall flu season.

"We expect sales to continue to be much stronger than normal for the foreseeable future," Al Millar, president of Alpha Pro Tech , said.

Back orders are expected be made up quickly, with production expanded threefold, Millar said. With every machine operating 24 hours a day, seven days week, the company is now producing 240 per minute, about 1,000 cases per day.

It's a big undertaking for a small company, but its second-quarter revenues were up 63 percent to a record $14.5 million from the first wave of the pandemic, led by a 184 percent increase in its mask sales.

Millar said he sees their work as an important line of defense in the reaction to the pandemic. As flu season progresses, his biggest challenge may be maintaining staffing levels if his workers or members of their families fall ill.

Alpha Pro Tech last ramped up production like this with the SARS outbreak of 2006. Back then, the contingency plan for an outbreak in Utah was to house workers who were willing in the production facility so they could keep working, he said.

3M Ramps Up Capacity

Alpha Pro Tech's much larger rival, 3M, has added more than 40 percent more respirator production capacity since the 2006 SARS outbreak at its facilities around the world in the U.S., Korea, Britain, Russia and China.

The manufacturing giant announced in July it is spending an additional $20 million in capital expansion now to boost capacity by another 10 percent in order to meet demand. Its orders are backlogged well into the end of the year.

Production of masks at its global facilities has also been ramped up around the clock, company spokeswoman Jacqueline Berry said.

Kimberly Clark is another major manufacturer of mask for health professionals and also reported a surge in demand during its second quarter related to H1N1. The company is expecting demand to be high during flu season, but declined to discuss its production, because it is now in the quiet period ahead of its third quarter earnings release scheduled for October 24th.

Massive N95 Mask Need

The N95 mask is in greatest demand because it's what world health officials recommend for health professionals when caring for flu patients.

In early September, the Institute of Medicine reported that N95 masks, which are heavier than traditional medical masks and fitted around the nose and mouth, do a better job of guarding against respiratory infection. According to the report, properly fitted and worn correctly, N95 respirators filter out 95 percent of particles as small as 0.3 micrometers, which is smaller than influenza viruses.

But hospitals and health-care facilities will need both types of masks. In the U.S., the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) estimates the need for more than 30 billion masks in the event of a serious epidemic (27 billion surgical masks, 5 billion respirator masks).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of August 28th, 2009 the national stockpile of contains only 119 million masks (39 million surgical, 80 million respirators).

Millar said he expects, for now, the round-the-clock production will help meet his customers respirator needs, but a widespread pandemic this winter will certainly put him and his larger manufacturing rivals to the test.

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