NORTH RICHLAND HILLS – When the swine flu pandemic hit in 2009, a small surgical mask company in North Richland Hills suddenly found itself in high demand.
Prestige Ameritech has one of very few plants still making masks in the U.S. Says Company vice-president Mike Bowen, "We had a lot of desperate hospitals calling us saying if we don't have a pallet of fresh face masks by next Wednesday we're going to shut down the E-R or the O-R."
It wasn't just hospitals calling.
The Federal Aviation Administration, Veterans Administration, Transportation Security Administration and other agencies bought millions of masks. Then the threat went away, and company executives say most customers returned to foreign made masks.
"Our military is dependent on a foreign source, therefore, dependent on a foreign government," said company founder Dan Reese.
But last week, the director of the federal department in charge of pandemic preparedness told a medical conference that America's mask supply is vulnerable.
"If we look for surgical masks a couple weeks after a pandemic is started, it's gone," said Robin Robinson. "Because only 5 percent is made here in the U.S. Most are made in China and Mexico."
Robinson said the government needs to encourage a buy-American plan for surgical masks. Prestige Ameritech executives say the announcement validates what they've been saying for years.
They say they hope the warning will boost business and hiring, and more importantly, protect the supply of a basic medical necessity.