The Mask Supply Chain!

Mask Supply Chain

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I went into an ice cream store the other day to get a treat for my Granddaughter. As per the norm these days I put on a mask and noticed the signage on the door requiring everyone to wear a mask inside.

The person who entered the store behind me did not have a mask and was soon told by store personnel that she would not be served without a mask. Needless to say a “Karen” incident ensued followed by that person storming out of the store. Why do some people have an issue with wearing a mask?

It got me thinking about where the masks were manufactured and was there a problem with that Supply Chain. I get emails several times a week with people trying to sell me masks.

What exactly is the Mask Supply Chain?

Different Kinds of Masks

Throughout the pandemic we all heard of N95 masks, a phrase I never heard of before. It started with concerns about shortages of masks for healthcare personnel, those on the frontline of taking care of our sick and dying citizens.

As more countries, government jurisdictions, and companies have adopted the approach that masks are mandatory the need for and use of masks has exploded. It seems that most stores, businesses and schools have a policy that requires masks to enter their establishments (whether people comply or not).

In support of this need any number of friends and family members are now making home made masks for free or for sale. I get emails constantly asking if I would like to buy masks in bulk, in particular from overseas. And for the first time to my knowledge I can go into stores like Costco and Walmart and find boxes of masks for sale.

Not surprisingly masks are functional but they have now become a fashion statement. They are no longer just plain cloth and single coloured material masks. They have designs, logos, sayings, expressions, and images of every kind imaginable.

Are they really effective for their stated purpose or has fashion now overtaken function?

While these masks do provide face covering, putting aside the fact that a lot of people don’t wear them properly, are they really sufficient to stop the spread of the virus? I’ve heard of instances of masks being imported and rejected because they do not comply with the specifications in place to govern their quality in use.

To be clear the government and business guidelines for the wearing of masks do not require the use of medical masks for everyday purposes. Fabric, non-medical masks are the norm and what you see most people wearing these days. There are guidelines issued by the World Health Organization on how to make and wear masks.

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Sourcing Masks

Beyond getting masks made by your mother or other family member or a friend where do we normally get our masks?

There is no question that many companies have started to make medical masks in response to the shortage of N95 masks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Some of these companies are new to manufacturing and others have converted existing manufacturing lines to make these products.

Now an untold number of other companies have begun manufacturing non-medical masks, the ones we now see being sold in stores and on-line. The innumerable designs, shapes, colours and styles are now available to suit most any desire.

Due to the shortfall in medical masks that was experienced during the pandemic many countries learned that there was no domestic manufacturing of their medical masks. Most of the medical masks in the world are manufactured in China, not surprisingly.

Many companies converted manufacturing operations from other products and started making masks domestically in many countries in our to meet their local demand but this supply would still be small compared to the supply from China.

In Canada for instance there was no manufacturing of medical masks within the country. When many masks imported from China were found to be defective and the United States government blocked the export of PPE to Canada the country found itself with a shortage situation that it could not rely on other countries to solve.

With China manufacturing most of the medical masks in the world the situation has been compounded by reports that much of that production was kept for use within China, despite growing production levels in response to the pandemic. While exports have increased from China the overall situation does require countries to reconsider their sourcing options for these critical products.

Canada has since made a deal with 3M for instance to manufacture medical masks in Ontario. Additional deals would make sense as exposure to a single company is still susceptible to Supply Chain disruption.

The issue that this mask situation has highlighted centres on sourcing of critical items such as we would require in our National Strategic Stockpiles. Certainly every country must ensure adequate inventory and source of supply of vital goods and materials such as PPE.

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However the belief that all of this new supply must be sourced domestically ignores the fact that the Coronavirus is nondiscriminatory when it comes to man-made borders. The virus is free to move across political boundaries. Any country, and company and any organization is exposed.

The true consideration in sourcing items such as medical masks should be to have multiple sources of supply. No single sourcing. And no domestic sourcing only. Multiple sources from various parts of the world.

This Parallel Supply Chain strategy for critical items such as medical masks must be implemented to help ensure a robust and resilient supply of these goods in the future.

The Mask Supply Chain

In these troubled times it is astonishing to see how the world has changed. In years past I have made many trips to Asia. In Asia it would not be uncommon to see various people wearing masks in public because they have a cold, flu, fever or some other ailment. But in Western society wearing a mask in public was virtually unheard of. Even when this pandemic is over I expect we will now see more people in the West wearing masks when they have a cold or flu.

Nowadays I can’t go into any single store without wearing a mask. Most, but not all people, wear a mask in the stores. For those of you who do not wear a mask I implore you to think about other people and yourself. This is not about a loss of freedom and comfort. It is about protecting the health and welfare of everyone.

During my experience at the ice cream parlour I thought the store personnel handled the situation perfectly. They advised the person that they would not be served unless they wore a mask. When the person refused and became irate the message was repeated. The store person iterated that the mask must be worn to protect the store people, other customers, and the person at issue.

The “Karen” exploded and stormed out of the store. Here response was over the top from my perspective. But when all was said and done we were all safer.

Stay safe! Wear a mask! Help others who are struggling with this. And let’s get through this pandemic together.

Originally published on September 1, 2020.
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