A Waikiki-based specialty printing company says it has access to up to 4 million FDA-approved medical masks but it’s marketing the products primarily to construction firms.

The marketing push by JPG Hawaii comes as the state’s hospitals are starting to take delivery of large quantities of medical masks, which have been in short supply.

Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor who is part of Hawaii’s COVID-19 response team, said a large shipment of protective gear for medical workers came in on Tuesday night and more will be arriving soon.

Meanwhile, JPG Hawaii, which sells everything from commercial signs and vehicle wraps to logo-bearing items like pens and mugs, is aiming to fill booming demand from outside the medical profession.

The company will sell the masks to hospitals, said Jodi Uehara, a sales consultant for the firm. But she said hospitals already have suppliers for the masks, while other types of companies don’t.

“We’re trying to be a resource for what people need,” she said.

Diamond Head looms in the distance as a masked man walks along the nearly empty beaches in Waikiki, HI on Wednesday, April 1, 2020. (Ronen Zilberman photo Civil Beat)
Diamond Head looms in the distance as a masked man walks along the nearly empty beaches in Waikiki on Wednesday. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat/2020

The lack of protective masks and other equipment for medical professionals and first responders treating victims of COVID-19 has been a major element contributing to the COVID-19 crisis. Masks are needed not only when health care workers treat patients but also when the workers administer COVID-19 tests, and the items are in short supply in Hawaii and around the U.S.

A recent report in The Atlantic attributed the shortage to just-in-time manufacturing for medical supplies and labyrinthine supply chains that have broken down under the strain of a sudden surge in demand.

In Hawaii, all of this has led to a wartime response, with doctors and nurses resorting to reusing masks, volunteers fashioning equipment and others engaging in sewing drives to make cloth masks for non-medical hospital staff workers who can use less protective gear as a last resort.

Largely left out of the discussion is the issue that others might need protective masks, too — the general public, and the few workers that are on the job as the economy languishes.

JPG Hawaii is positioning itself as filling the gap. It has a supplier that can make and deliver millions of masks in as little as two weeks, Uehara says.

The company’s source in China can produce highly protective, FDA-approved KN95 respirator masks, which are virtually identical to N95 masks used in hospitals, Uehara said.

The only difference between the KN95 and N95 masks, she said, is that the KN95 models are made in China. The CDC has identified the Chinese-made KN95 masks as a suitable alternative for healthcare workers when supplies of N95 masks are running low.

Despite the CDC guidance, it’s not clear whether a hospital could order a huge shipment of masks from JPG Hawaii’s supplier.

“I’m told those would need to be vetted by our supply chain management folks as well as our Infection Prevention and Control folks to see if it meets their standard,” said Sean Ibarra, Corporate Communications Coordinator for The Queen’s Health Systems.

Green agreed any products would have to be carefully vetted, something that’s now being done by the Healthcare Association of Hawaii.

“Everybody and their mother is selling masks now,” he said. The question is whether they’re adequate for hospitals.

Uehara said JPG Hawaii wants to help other industries where workers are providing essential services: occupations like construction workers and even restaurants, which are allowed to keep operating under exceptions to stay-at-home orders issued by state and county authorities. Such workers need protection too, she said.

“Because we have the source, we want to help fill the shortfall,” she said.

Although JPG isn’t limiting to whom it sells, it’s unlikely an average customer could take advantage of JPG’s connection. A minimum order of KN95 masks is 5,000 at $3.07 each, according a price list published recently by the company. Order 2 million, and the price drops to $2.58 each.

The company also has access to other items, like hand sanitizer. And blue, pleated surgical masks, also said to be FDA-certified are also for sale, with a minimum order of 10,000 going for 85 cents each.

So far, she said, the company has placed two large orders for clients: one for hand sanitizer and one for masks. While the manufacturer requires only large orders, Uehara said JPG is trying to bundle smaller numbers of orders from clients into larger orders to meet the manufacturer’s minimum.

The goal, she said, is to protect the public.

“It’s nice when the community’s coming together and sewing masks, but they say that’s not really protection,” she said.

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