Coronavirus: How Taiwan is cranking up mask production to meet shortfall

Pupils, some wearing masks, sit behind partition boards as they attend classes at Dajia Elemental School in Taipei, Taiwan, on March 3, 2020. The school prepared the boards, made with PP Corrugated Board, to prevent infection of Covid-19 by saliva when pupils talk, cough, sneeze or have lunch in the classroom. PHOTO: EPA-EFE
A Taiwanese person wearing a mask as a precautionary measure walks in the street, in Taipei, Taiwan, on Feb 27, 2020. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TAIPEI - Mask factories in Taiwan have been operating 24/7 for over a month since the island detected its first case of the coronavirus in January, but the masks still sell out at most pharmacies as soon as they open.

Mask production has increased to 8.2 million a day from 7 million a day last month.

The government had banned mask exports in January, and the Central Epidemic Command Centre (CECC) on Monday (March 2) promised that local surgical mask manufacturers will be able to produce 13 million masks each day by late this month or early next month.

The government, on Feb 6, implemented a mask rationing system - allowing anyone with a national healthcare ID card to buy two adult masks per week after Taiwanese complained that masks were all sold out when the Covid-19 outbreak first sparked panic buying in Taiwan.

This allocation will be increased to three adult masks per week starting on Thursday.

Before the outbreak, the majority of masks Taiwanese used were imported, with up to 93 per cent from China, which is now facing a mask shortage.

Currently, Taiwan does not import masks and is ramping up production to supply its own needs.

Premier Su Tseng-chang on Monday said: "Seeing how the production rate has increased, the government will also be adjusting the rationing system accordingly."

He has been spearheading the mask rationing plan, which included imposing the export ban to ensure that all Taiwanese have enough masks, and requesting mask-producing factories to work round the clock.

"I think the government reacted quickly (when the outbreak began) to ban mask exports, because they know outbreak prevention is a battle," Mr Lawrence Huang told The Straits Times. Mr Huang, 35, is the CEO of Sumeasy Enterprise, one of Taiwan's five largest mask manufacturers.

Before the outbreak, his factory produced about 200,000 to 300,000 masks each day.

"Now we're making 500,000 to 800,000 a day, depending on how well the machinery is functioning," said Mr Huang, whose factory was one of the first to be approached by the government to increase production. Sumeasy Enterprise installed new production lines late last month.

Mr Huang 's entire crew of 60 - including 10 employed recently - have been working 12-hour shifts since Jan 28 to keep the machines humming 24/7.

"They're paid for overtime work, but my employees have been eager to work because they know they're helping Taiwan to combat the outbreak during a difficult time," said Mr Huang.

The government also ordered last month 60 new mask production lines for companies. As of now, half the new lines are in operation.

"The new production lines contributed to the recent surge of some 8.2 million masks produced each day," said Ms Wu Shou-mei, the Health Ministry's Food and Drug Administration director-general on Monday.

Out of the 8.2 million masks, 5.2 million will go to pharmacies and other retailers that the public has access to, and the remaining three million will be sent to hospitals for medical workers on the quarantine and treatment frontlines.

Prior to the production increase, 3.9 million masks were sent to retailers from the factories each day.

The central government will be spending another NT$90 million (S$4.18 million) on an additional 30 production lines, which will be sent to factories in mid to late March.

"By early April, with all 90 new lines in operation, the daily production numbers will be around 13 million masks," said a Ministry of Economic Affairs (MOEA) official on Monday.

To make sure all masks produced are accounted for at the end of each day and that they are not hoarded to be sold on black markets, the government dispatched officials from the MOEA's Industrial Development Bureau, local police officers and also military personnel to supervise each factory's mask production. Soldiers also help with the packing.

"Taiwan's government has listed the surgical mask as a kind of 'war reserve stock', and while not everyone is able to get one, at least there's constant production going on," said Mr Huang.

The CECC has also reserved enough masks to last medical personnel for 30 days, as well as enough N95 masks and hazmat suits for 25 days at hospitals around the island.

While Taiwanese are still lining up early each day at their local pharmacies and retailers for masks, the process has been made easier with the ID card-based purchase system, as well as real-time maps produced by civilian engineers and the National Health Insurance Administration that show how many masks each retailer has in stock.

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