Ever since the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, shortages in PPE have been in the news. Disruptions in the global supply chain led to an insufficient number of gloves, gowns, goggles, and especially N95 respirators and other masks being manufactured and distributed.

The PPE industry has struggled to keep up with demand, and in truth, it is still struggling. The World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that the PPE industry will need to increase manufacturing by 40% in order to adequately address these shortages. The market for PPE grows as infection rates grow, and also as more businesses attempt to open up while providing their employees with adequate protection.

In retrospect, how has the PPE industry responded to the crisis? Have the key players in the industry risen to meet the challenge?


At First Glance

It would seem that the PPE industry, as a whole, bungled their response to the pandemic, especially at the beginning. After all, manufacturers were so stressed by supply chain issues—like raw material shortages and labor shortages due to COVID-19—that they were on their heels from the get-go. Coupled with a 5–10 times increase in PPE demand, this led to an inability for the industry to keep up.

Many suppliers compounded this by a major lack of communication. Since they could not predict supply with any certainty, they were very tight lipped with their distributors. This resulted in healthcare providers and other essential workers thinking that they had an adequate PPE supply, and then discovering that the supply chain had dried up entirely without anyone realizing it.

On top of this, the US dropped by the ball by not maintaining stockpiles of PPE. They also depended primarily on imported PPE, rather than creating a safety net of domestically produced equipment. This caused huge disruptions to the supply chain when Asian markets shut down early in the pandemic.

These indisputable facts tend to be what the media – and society at large – see when they look at the interplay between COVID-19 and the PPE industry. In truth, however, there is a much larger picture.


Making Lemonade

Although they were dealt a bad hand, PPE manufacturers have actually gained a great deal from the pandemic. Many key industry players have stepped up to the plate and responded well, and the positive results of COVID-19 on PPE production will be felt for years to come.

Improved Quality

Manufacturers have streamlined their portfolio, slimming down on lesser-selling PPE and marshalling their forces to manufacture their strongest offerings. For example, when demand for respirators was at its peak, large PPE manufacturers stepped up to produce them. Many manufacturers also invested heavily in R&D and underwent acquisitions in an attempt to broaden capacity and expand their product offerings.

Acceptance of KN95 Masks

Because N95 masks were scarce at the beginning of the pandemic, KN95 masks were used as an alternative. Although these masks are not NIOSH approved in the US, they are still extremely effective at filtering viral particles from the air – much more than wearing cloth masks, at the very least. When the CDC authorized the use of KN95 masks, they opened up a new supply line of masks at a critical time.

Increased Manufacturing Capabilities

Companies have stepped into the breach and upped their manufacturing capabilities to meet the demand for PPE during the pandemic. Tyvek, and Tyvek alternatives like Keyguard, expanded their production of bunny suits, smocks, gowns, and sleeves. As an example, GOJO, the manufacturer of Purell, decided to ramp up production at their own risk, since their product may become less and less necessary as the pandemic subsides. Manufacturers also did a good job of maintaining a supply of non-glove items, such as smocks, lab coats, and booties. (Gloves have been more difficult to produce, due to a current shortage of butadiene nitrile.) While we may think of Operation Warp Speed as applying only to the search for an effective vaccine, in truth, a variety of manufacturers have shown creativity and commitment in responding to the crisis.

Focus on Sustainability

Even in the midst of the pandemic, companies have continued to be thoughtful about social and environmental impacts. The trend to produce biodegradable gloves has continued during the COVID period, which over time will reduce the number of disposable gloves filling our landfills and leaching into the groundwater. Manufacturers have continued taking other steps towards sustainability as well, swapping both outer and inner packaging for 100% recyclable materials.  Manufacturers have also continued to buy more efficient machinery, and to modify existing machinery so that it uses less energy.

While COVID-19 shocked the PPE industry along with the rest of the world, many within the industry rose to the challenge. In retrospect, we may likely find a surprising truth – that the overall effect of COVID-19 on the PPE industry will be a net positive.

Written by Robert Brown