How the face mask supply in the U.S. dropped

A sign outside the Hoboken ShopRite on Thursday morning, March 11, during the coronavirus outbreak.


As Americans rushed to buy face masks amid the early but growing threat of coronavirus, U.S. February imports of the product from its biggest supplier – China – plummeted to its lowest level in years, a USA TODAY analysis of trade data found. 

Combined with a sky-high increase in U.S. mask exports to China the same month, the trade data suggest a double whammy: fewer masks coming in and more masks going out, just as U.S. medical workers were about to need as many as they could get.

The U.S. imported $203.1 million in protective masks from China in February, a more than 20% drop from the $261 million worth of masks in the same month last year, according to a USA TODAY analysis on Census trade data. 

It was the lowest February import of Chinese masks since 2015.

At the same time, U.S. exports of masks to China surged to $15.8 million, their highest February levels in a decade, the data show. 

The analysis examines a trade category that includes the tight-fitting N95 respirator masks, as well as the looser-fitting, disposable surgical masks and other textile-based masks. The World Customs Organization identifies the code group as one of several different medical supply categories needed for handling COVID-19. 

China is the world’s biggest exporter of medical face masks. It produced about half of the world’s $11.7 billion supply in 2018 alone, the United Nations’ latest trade data shows. And the U.S. has long been its biggest customer. 


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By Javier Manning

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