In May 2020, as Massachusetts competed fiercely with the rest of the world for high-quality masks and other personal protective equipment to protect frontline workers from COVID-19, Governor Charlie Baker announced millions of dollars in grants to local businesses to create a “national” supply chain for this critical material.
But while school districts across the state – and just about everyone – have scrambled in recent weeks to procure high-quality masks to tackle the spate of omicron cases, Massachusetts has failed. apparently bought no masks from suppliers as he paid around $ 7 million to build production lines for N95 masks.
About GBH Boston Public Radio May 21, 2020, Baker said the state must “ensure that we have the national capacity to manufacture and distribute” personal protective equipment and test materials that “we have traveled the world to deliver to people. It can’t be like that in the future.
That same day, Baker announced a $ 2 million grant to Boyd Technologies in Lee, Mass., for “equipment for surgical and N95 production lines” and $ 1.2 million to ViruDefense in Burlington, Mass., to “expand manufacturing of surgical N95 through the purchase of new equipment ”.
But Boyd CEO Stephen Boyd told GBH News on Monday, “The state is not currently purchasing any masks from Boyd Technology.”
ViruDefense was acquired by a New Jersey company last March. The company did not respond to requests for comment, and an attempt to order masks through its website received no response.
In October 2020, the Baker administration announced another round of grants, including $ 2.8 million to Shawmut Manufacturing in West Bridgewater which, along with investor The Fallon Company, planned to “purchase equipment for a vertically integrated N95 mask factory in Massachusetts. “
Baker visited the Shawmut factory on March 10, 2021, stating that the state was proud to have helped establish the production chain and “we look forward to continuing to work with innovative companies like Shawmut Corporation and The Fallon Company to keep residents safe and strengthen our economy “.
But the state did not buy their masks.
Shawmut CEO James Wyner told GBH News in an email Monday: “We have received an order for 100,000 masks for the Mass State Police. right after launch. Other than that, we have not made any purchases from major institutions in Massachusetts, whether private or public. “
Wyner said the production line was built from scratch and they employed over 150 people in the factory last year, but it boiled down to a handful because they don’t sell a lot of masks. “The overall demand for our N95s is a very small fraction of what the plant was set up for,” he said. “We have a lot of capacity available and would like to meet the needs of the Commonwealth in the midst of the current crisis.”
With the return to school last week amid a high number of COVID-19 cases, school districts have been rushing to get masks for their staff and students.
The State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education provided schools with KN95 masks, but teachers quickly took to social media with photos of substandard masks and questions regarding their efficiency.
There is an important difference between KN95 and N95 masks: Although they are supposed to meet the same standards, KN95 masks are produced under a Chinese mask standard, which has less stringent testing requirements. “There is no regulatory oversight,” said Anne Miller, executive director of Project N95, a non-profit organization created at the start of the pandemic to distribute high quality masks. “There is no one to control the production. There is no way to know that a KN95 is good, unless it is regularly tested by someone.
A DESE spokesperson first said that the filtration efficiency of the masks had been tested by MIT, but the department then backtracked and said it had not been. Some have been found to be less than 50% effective thanks to MIT testing. According to the department, the masks were provided by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
The governor’s office did not explain why the state does not buy masks from local producers who have received subsidies to produce masks, saying only, “The objective of [the grant] The program was to increase PPE production to support frontline workers at a time when PPE supply chains were strained. ”
School districts across the state have adopted different tactics to keep their staff and students safe, depending, in part, on the quality of the masks they have received from the state.
In Salem, Superintendent Stephen Zrike said he received a first shipment of DESE of KN95 masks to distribute to staff and teachers when the school reopens after the holidays. Zrike said each teacher received 30 masks.
He’s aware of the controversy surrounding the recent state cast, but Zrike said, “What I’ve been told is that [the KN95 masks are] better than the cloth masks and surgical masks that we gave out to people. ”
Like other districts in the state, Salem is now looking to purchase more masks for students, teachers and staff using federal pandemic relief funds. Zrike said he has asked his finance department to look into the matter and may place an order through a New York-based company that sells student and adult size masks.
At Wrentham Public Schools, Superintendent Allen Cameron told GBH News he had received 6,000 of what he called “the non-defective brand” of KN95 masks from DESE to distribute to 200 teachers and staff. He said they are now looking for more.
And in Arlington, a community group called Safer Air = Safer Schools said it launched a crowdfunding effort and was able to deliver more than 6,000 approved KN95 masks to school staff, students and community members. Eliza Perez said the group has taken steps to secure authentic face masks for the community “at a time when supply lines are in question.”
Michael Morris, superintendent of Amherst-Pelham Regional Public Schools, told GBH News that his district had concerns about the quality of masks the state was offering as early as last year, so they purchased their own masks from a New York-based retailer. The school district now requires all students and staff to wear a surgical mask or KN95 mask, and it provides masks to anyone who does not have them.
Questions about the distribution of masks worried the administration, with Massachusetts Teachers Association President Merrie Najimy criticizing Baker and DESE Commissioner Jeff Riley for insisting that the masks provided to teachers were effective and tested by MIT. The MTA calls for an investigation into the actions of the state and wants an independent agency from the DESE to take charge of the distribution of personal protective equipment to students and educators.
The Legislature’s Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Management and Preparedness will hold a watchdog hearing on Tuesday on the state’s response to the omicron variant and invited Baker and the Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders to testify.
“We have questions regarding the state of the stocks of Commonwealth emergency supplies,” Joint Committee chairman WIlliam Driscoll told GBH News in an email. “Also, whether or not the administration plans to distribute additional high performance masks to teachers and staff as was done before the return to school in 2022.”
The state grant program to develop local mask production was managed by the Manufacturing Emergency Response Team, a public-private partnership established in March 2020 to coordinate the efforts of industry, universities and government to help manufacturers switch to the production needed for the pandemic. The Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which managed the M-ERT, complaints on its website that project grants led to more than three million masks being manufactured in the state by April 2021.