COVID-19 Has Caused A Shortage Of Face Masks. But They're Surprisingly Hard To Make

China now makes 200 million face masks a day — more than twenty times the amount it made at the start of February. The leap has been spurred by the outbreak of a new coronavirus. The masks include the lightweight ones that people like to wear in the hope of protection against coronavirus as well as the heavy-duty N95 masks used by health-care workers.

But that's still not nearly enough to meet local demands as well as global orders. So a scramble is now underway in China.

Mask factories are "running at 110 percent capacity," say authorities. And factories that once made shoes, iPhones and cars are being retooled to make masks. Machines that once churned out fibrous materials destined for diapers and sanitary pads are now producing materials for masks.

"Making masks is not as easy as you imagine. We have to make the ear loops and the metal strip, the packaging. There is a pretty big system involved," Guan Xunze, chairman of pharmaceutical group Shengjingtong in northeastern China, told NPR by phone. He's referring to the metal strip that lets you bend the mask around the nose bridge.

Shengjingtong is one of the thousands of companies transitioning to become part of China's mask-making "army," As the government calls it. Aided by generous government subsidies, Guan filled a sterile space in a pharmaceuticals factory he already owned with second-hand machinery to assemble the masks. Within 11 days, they were making more than 10,000 N95 masks a day. Now, it's 200,000.

Currently, of the 200 million masks China makes a day, only 600,000 are N95 standard masks, used by medical personnel, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, a state planning body. Provincial regulators have granted dozens of new licenses to open additional factories capable of producing top-grade masks, including those that meet the standards for use by health-care professionals.

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