A simple plan to produce billions of N95 masks

We desperately need to increase our capacity to test for COVID-19, to trace contacts, and to produce masks and other forms of personal protective equipment.  This will allow us to keep the virus under control and to cautiously re-start economic activity as we await development of a vaccine.  Unfortunately, President Trump has made it clear that he will not lead a mobilization against the virus.  His goal is simply to avoid blame for failures.

Congress cannot force the president to act, and it certainly cannot force him to be competent or honest.  Instead, Congress needs to go around the president.  This is not easy to do, but in the case of personal protective gear there is a simple law Congress can pass to greatly increase supplies.  To illustrate, here is how Congress can increase production of N95 masks:

  1. Take a price list for N95 masks from 3M or Honeywell or another major producer of masks from December 2019
  2. Decide which N95 models are most useful for managing the epidemic
  3. Quadruple the prices of these models
  4. Make a binding commitment to purchase all N95 masks produced between now and the end of 2020 at these prices

This simple law would give manufacturers a strong incentive to gear up production – to run additional shifts, to train new workers, to install new production equipment, etc.  The incentives it creates would filter through the entire web of suppliers that contribute to mask production.  It requires no action from the executive branch of government except cutting checks.  It is possible that too many masks will be produced, but any unneeded masks could be used to replenish the national stockpile, sent to low income countries, or simply mailed to every American household to use during flu season.

Congress can take direct action to increase mask production because N95 masks are well-defined products.  The same approach would work other forms of personal protective gear.  It would be more difficult to contract in this manner for increased test production, since there are many tests and clear standards have not been set (for time to get a result, false positive and negative rates, etc.).  In addition, we want to encourage the introduction of new technologies.  All this would require more complicated legislation.  But even in the case of tests Congress could jury rig something imperfect.

In the face of a disastrously incompetent and irresponsible president, Congress must step into the breach.