It’s been one of the most sought after pieces of personal protection since the pandemic began — the N95 mask.
They're hard to find, in demand and yet 30 million of them are sitting in a Miami Lakes warehouse just waiting to be bought.
"The biggest issue we have is reaching consumers," said Luis Arguello Jr., vice president of DemeTECH, which retooled and geared up production of N95s last March when the nation had a critical shortage. "We’re blocked on Google, We’re blocked on social media. You can advertise Chinese masks, but you can’t advertise Made in the USA N95 masks."
That’s because big tech companies were concerned last year there weren’t enough N95s for health care workers, so they restricted access to the general public.
Beyond the consumer market, Arguello said companies like his are disadvantaged in large bid processes because the American-made masks cost more than those made in China.
"If I ask you, are you willing to pay a little more for something that protects your life, are you willing to pay it?" he asked.
Right now the public can go to the demetech.us website and buy a box of 20 N95s for $80 retail.
Business has picked up a bit since the New York Times Thursday ran a front page story on DemeTECH's and other companies' struggles to thrive in what should be a booming market.
The company's wholesale prices are about half the retail amounts, but Arguello said they’re still being undercut by the Chinese, which subsidizes their industries and pay much lower wages.
"We’re paying high paying US jobs," he said. "Our only way out of the economic and unemployment crisis is to put Americans back to work."
The KN95s produced in China are not as reliable as the N95s, Arguello said, noting a study by the non-profit, independent patient safety group ECRI found up to 70% of the Chinese KN95s don’t meet the U.S. standards for the N95s.
Yet search Amazon for N95s and almost every result is for a KN95.
Arguello said the problem is more than an economic one, but a national security matter as well because if US manufacturers can't move their products, foreign suppliers will once again have the market cornered.
And the American worker will lose.
"It's unfortunate," he said. "If we continue at this pace, we’re not going to be able to move our products, we’re going to have to start laying off some our 1,500 employees."
If DemeTECH can crack the supply chain, he said, he could hire thousands more, doubling his production capacity, which is currently 150 million masks a month.
"It’s a strange time," he said. "We’re building jobs, we’re building products that people need, people want to buy our products. But we’re having a hard time letting people know that we exist and we can sell them N95s."