• Prestige Ameritech, the largest surgical face mask producer in the U.S., offered to produce millions of N95 masks in the U.S.
  • This offer was made in late January before the COVID-19 pandemic in this country surged to horrific dimensions
  • The Trump administration showed little interest in his offer at the time, a whistleblower complaint revealed

The Trump administration could have asked America's largest maker of surgical masks to produce millions of N95 respirators as early as January but didn't do so. The shortage of these life-saving masks might have a hand in the deaths of healthcare frontliners and the hospitalization of thousands of others.

The company that could have spared thousands of families from grief is medical supply firm, Prestige Ameritech, based in Forth Worth, Texas and run by Michael Bowen. Prestige Ameritech is the largest surgical face mask producer in the U.S.

The company told the Trump Administration as early as January 22, the day after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States, it could immediately reopen its shuttered production lines to produce N95 masks. Bowen said in the event of a "dire situation," his company could increase production by 1.7 million N95 masks per week by reactivating four N95 manufacturing lines in "like-new" condition but at significant cost. This would require a major financial commitment from the government, however.

“We are the last major domestic mask company,” Bowen wrote on January 23 to top administrators in the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

“My phones are ringing now, so I don’t ‘need’ government business," said Bowen, a report by The Washington Post noted.

"I’m just letting you know that I can help you preserve our infrastructure if things ever get really bad. I’m a patriot first, businessman second.”

Bowen saw the shrinking domestic production of medical masks as a national security issue, and wanted to give the federal government first crack at new orders. He said he’d been raising the alarm for years the U.S. is too dependent on foreign countries such as China for its supply of face masks.

Nearly 90% of surgical masks used in this country are produced abroad. He told DHHS he can ensure the U.S. will have the masks it needs. But communication between Bowen and administration officials fell out, and there was little interest in his offer.

Bowen’s patriotic gesture was revealed in an 89-page whistleblower complaint filed this week by Dr. Rick Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). Dr. Bright asserts he was retaliated against by Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary for preparedness and emergency response, and other officials.

Dr. Bright was demoted to a lesser post because he tried to “prioritize science and safety over political expediency.”

A Brooklyn man was arrested for selling medical supplies at inflated prices. Creative Commons

Emails reveal Dr. Bright pressed Kadlec and other DHHS officials on the face mask shortages, and on Bowen’s proposal, but to no avail. Dr. Bright said Bowen’s warnings “seem to be falling on deaf ears.”

“U.S. mask supply is at imminent risk,” Dr. Bright wrote to Bowen on January 26. “Rick, I think we’re in deep s--t."

A senior U.S. government official with knowledge of the offer said Bowen has a “legitimate beef.”

“He was prescient, really,” said the official. “But the reality is (DHHS) didn’t have the money to do it at that time.”

Prestige Ameritech was eventually awarded a $9.5 million contract by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to produce a million N95 masks per month over a period of one year at 79 cents apiece. This output didn't require the company to restart its idle manufacturing lines.