NORTH RICHLAND HILLS — Inside a massive industrial building in North Richland HIlls, complex machines piece together surgical masks and send them down conveyor belts for packaging.
The machines make a rhythmic hissing sound, representing the heartbeat of a crucial American industry that's nearly dead.
More than 90 percent of masks sold in the U.S. are foreign-made, primarily in China. Only a few mask-makers remain in the U.S., and some top government officials are starting to worry about the security of the supply chain.
"If we look for surgical masks a couple of weeks after a pandemic starts, it's gone," said Dr. Robin Robinson, a deputy assistant director with the Department of Health and Human Services. Mask manufacturer Prestige Ameritech posted her comments on its website.
"if we don't do anything differently, by the end of the decade, China will make all of America's masks and I won't be in business," said company co-founder Mike Bowen. He helped launch the company eight years ago.
When H1N1 flu hit a few years later, health care providers screamed for more masks. The company hired more workers to meet demand.
Then those employees had to be laid off when customers went back to foreign suppliers.
"We're not talking about saving money," Bowen said. "We're talking about saving lives. What will you do when your mask supply collapses?"
Now the threat is Ebola, and this time the government is calling.
"We've heard several times from the Department of Defense and CDC," Bowen said Wednesday. There are no orders yet, but they want to know what the company can do in a hurry.
Bowen said if all its machines were running 24 hours a day, they could produce 20 to 30 million masks a month. He points out that Prestige Ameritech supplies Texas Health Resources, the hospital chain now treating the Ebola patient in Dallas. The hospital chain stayed with the company after the last flu pandemic passed.
Ironically, the newest Prestige Ameritech customer is a chain of stores in China.