The incoming administration, he said, is exploring ways to take over the distribution of testing supplies and medical gear. They are also seeking to create financial incentives and “buy American” policies to boost the handful of domestic companies that make P.P.E., he said. Mr. Biden would not hesitate to embrace the Defense Production Act, Dr. Bright said, though he did not provide details on how it would be employed.
Industry executives say the only way to guarantee the United States has a reliable supply of high-quality masks and other medical gear is to recognize the sector as essential for national security, similar to the Pentagon’s approach for ensuring companies that make fighter jet components and military uniforms remain viable even in peacetime.
That could mean providing loans and subsidies to domestic companies, mandating that state and national stockpiles acquire American-made medical products, and perhaps requiring hospital chains to source some of their supplies from homegrown manufacturers.
“Masks are not a big spend,” Mr. Bowen said. “The whole damn market is less than $150 million.”
Dan DeLay, who oversees procurement at CommonSpirit Health, the nation’s second-largest nonprofit hospital chain, said the pandemic had opened his eyes to the importance of domestic supplies. But, he said, it can be challenging to convince hospital executives to buy American-made protective gear, which can cost 40 percent more than goods manufactured overseas. “If we’re serious about domestic manufacturing, we’re going to have to make a serious investment that is sustained over the long haul in case something like this happens again,” he said.
For now, the legions of exhausted health care workers are focused on getting through the current crisis. Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, said the monthslong shortages had left many members feeling unappreciated and angry. Ms. Turner, who is also an I.C.U. nurse at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale, Minn., recalled the days before the pandemic, when nurses were given an N95 mask for each patient. These days, she frequently hears from nurses forced to use the masks up to 10 times, “or until they fall off their faces,” she said.
Despite her optimism that a Biden administration will be different, she is weary of political leaders who lionize medical workers as frontline warriors but do little to help keep them safe, she said.
“The total disregard for our safety has been unconscionable,” she said. “They call us heroes but we’re not being treated like soldiers at war because if we were, the federal government would make sure we have everything we need.”