Nothing — not the eruption of Mount St. Helens, the anthrax threats or the Sept. 11 attacks — has spiked demand in protective respiratory masks the way the SARS scare has.
3M Co. plants in Valley and in Aberdeen, S.D., are cranking out masks around the clock, and nonstop production is being considered at the White Knight Engineered Products plant in Childersburg, Ala. Distributors to hospitals, equipment companies and retail stores nationwide say they can't keep the masks on the shelves.
"We can't get them," said Rebecca Speights, a spokeswoman for the Medical Supplies Depot in Mobile, Ala., which ran out of masks a week ago. "The manufacturers can't make them fast enough."
Demand has risen to an all-time high since March 15, when the World Health Organization recommended masks to help stop the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome. The highly contagious disease had killed more than 100 people, most of them in China and Hong Kong. No deaths have been reported in the United States.
The 3M plant in Valley has shifted some of its 386 workers from making insulation and respirators to making the N-95 mask, the model recommended by the WHO. Production is up 50 percent, but company policy prevents plant manager David Clauss from discussing exact numbers.
"Everyone here has rallied to squeeze out every mask we can as fast as we can," Clauss said.
White Knight does not make the N-95 mask but still has seen a 10 percent increase in demand for its model, vice president Bill Wolfe said.
"People are wearing anything they can find," Wolfe said.
In Alabama, Speights said many of the requests for masks come from people with relatives in Hong Kong and other parts of Asia, and from Canada, where there have been 10 deaths.
Regin HVAC Products Inc. of Shelton, Conn., is getting requests for as many as a million masks a day but can only get 10,000 masks a week from its manufacturer, company spokesman John DeWitt said.
Many of the requests are from safety equipment distributors, DeWitt said, but some come from individuals in the United States, Canada and Asia.
"People just want something to cover their faces," DeWitt said.