How 3M Blew Its Reputation on the N95 Mask
The $32 billion company was known as an icon of manufacturing innovation. Then came the mask shortage—and Trump.
On the evening of April 2, some two weeks into America’s full-blown Covid crisis, President Donald Trump fired off a tweet to his more than 80 million followers:
We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their masks… Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing — will have a big price to pay!
The notion of 3M ending up square in the bilious crosshairs of the Tweeter-in-Chief would have seemed absurd just days earlier. A staid, 118-year-old, Midwestern manufacturing company, 3M is best known for Scotch tape, sandpaper, and Post-It notes — it sells enough of them that it pulled in $32 billion last year, and employs nearly 100,000. Unlike the flashy high-tech wizardry radiating from Silicon Valley, 3M was built on made-America-great, meat-and-potatoes innovation. The company owns some 120,000 patents, and sells some 55,000 products. So how did a much-admired all-American sticky-paper company end up being publicly cast as a pandemic villain?
The answer: N95 masks. At the time of the tweet, there was growing public horror over cries from America’s frontline health care workers running out of the N95s that would keep them from getting infected by the flood of sick and dying patients. N95 masks are designed to be discarded after a single patient encounter, but medical professionals were getting infected as a result of relying on the same mask for as many as five shifts, or even sharing the mask with other health care workers. It was still a few months before there would be hard data on the actual number of U.S. health care workers infected with Covid-19 — by the end of July, estimates reached 150,000 to 200,000, with some 1,300 fatalities — but it was already clear the country was verging on a massive health care meltdown right at the peak of the crisis.
It turns out the majority of N95 masks in the U.S. comes from one company — 3M, which developed the first N95 masks back in the ’70s. And inexplicably, 3M wasn’t making nearly enough of them.