3M CEO defends Maplewood-based company against Trump Twitter attack

Boxes of N95 masks are stacked.
A collection of boxed 3M N95 masks.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News

Updated: 5:56 p.m.

Maplewood-based 3M is defending itself against an allegation by President Trump who questioned the multinational company’s commitment to providing Americans with critically needed N95 respirator masks.

The masks can block the transmission of the COVID-19 virus.

In an interview with MPR’s Tom Crann Friday, 3M CEO Mike Roman said his company is getting as many masks as possible to Americans.

“The narrative that we're not doing everything to maximize delivery of respirators in our home country is false. Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.

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Trump tweeted Thursday: “We hit 3M hard today after seeing what they were doing with their Masks. ‘P Act’ all the way.’ Big surprise to many in government as to what they were doing - will have a big price to pay!”

The “P act” is apparently a reference to the Defense Production Act. The Trump administration issued an order under that act authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to “use any and all authority available under the act to acquire, from any appropriate subsidiary or affiliate of 3M Company, the number of N95 respirators that the administrator determines to be appropriate.”

On Friday, Trump announced that he directed the FEMA to prevent the export of N95 masks like those made by 3M, along with surgical gloves and other anti-viral protective gear. He said exceptions might be made to help Italy and Spain, which have been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak.

“We are not happy with 3M,” Trump added during his Friday briefing.

3M says the Trump administration has asked the company to stop exporting respirators made in the U.S. to Canada and Latin America. In a statement, 3M said there are “significant humanitarian implications of ceasing respirator supplies to healthcare workers in Canada and Latin America, where we are a critical supplier of respirators.”

Roman said 3M has ramped up respirator mask production around the world and will further increase it, along with trying to increase the importation of N95 masks produced by 3M plants overseas. Many countries have banned or restricted the export of the masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE, in an apparent effort to keep those items for their own citizens.

Roman said the administration's invoking of the Defense Production Act will require 3M to fill orders from FEMA from its international locations. He said 3M was recently able to import 10 million N95 respirators from China.

“We're working with the administration and China to increase how much we can bring to the U.S. And then we will respond to the requests from FEMA,” Roman told Crann.

Roman said 3M is trying to fully understand what the DPA order means: “I do know it will be focused on orders that will bring more of our international production into the U.S.”

Roman said the company is trying to do whatever it can to fight price-gouging by any seller that may have acquired masks from a 3M distributor or other channel.

Four people stand in a hallway with a 3M logo on the wall
Vice President Mike Pence (center) meets Gov. Tim Walz, 3M CEO Mike Roman and Deborah Birx, part of his coronavirus task force, Thursday March 5, 2020 at 3M headquarters in Maplewood, Minn.
Peter Cox | MPR News

“We have not and would never increase prices on our supplies in a crisis like this,” he said. “And we don't sell to the highest bidder. We sell through these authorized distributors or directly to the government.

“So the narrative that we are not doing everything to fight price gouging and unauthorized reselling is absurd,’’ he added.

Roman said that price-gouging resellers are often selling counterfeit products or pre-COVID-19 inventory acquired from resellers around the world.

3M manufactures N95 masks in the U.S., Europe, Korea, Singapore, Brazil and China.

“When the COVID-19 outbreak really rose up there, the government allocated our product out of our plant,” Roman said. “We did not have the ability to direct where that product went. It was shipped to combat COVID in China.”

Roman suggested it will be a challenge for 3M to import many of the N95 masks it makes overseas. “A number of countries put export restrictions and bans on PPE,” he said. “We can't ship anything out of our Europe operations outside of Europe. We only are getting some relief from not being able to export out of Korea.”

Meanwhile, Roman said ceasing all exports of respirators produced in the United States would likely backfire, causing other countries to retaliate and do the same. That could reduce the supply of respirators in the U.S., he said.

An N95 respirator mask meets federal standards for protecting the wearer from inhaling hazardous airborne particles, including bacteria and viruses. These respirator masks filter out at least 95 percent particles three-tenths of a micrometer in size.

3M says it has doubled its worldwide production since January to a rate of nearly 100 million N95 masks per month. In the United States, the company has said it is producing 35 million respirators per month.

3M has a $172 million contract to supply N95 masks to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Other U.S. companies, including Honeywell, also produce masks.

Minnesota officials are trying to assess the supply of respirator masks and other protective equipment. They say as that becomes clear, the allocation of the protective masks and other devices can be prioritized and optimized.

In testimony before a U.S. Senate committee early in March, Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary Robert Kadlec said the country would need 3.5 billion N95 respirator masks for a “severe” pandemic. But he said the nation had only 35 million masks in its strategic reserves. That’s one percent of what Kadlec said would be needed.

In 2015, experts at the CDC and related organizations forecast the country could need even more respirator masks. They said “providing these numbers of respirators and surgical masks represents a logistic challenge for U.S. public health agencies. Public health officials must urgently consider alternative use strategies for respirators and surgical masks during a pandemic that may vary from current practices.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.