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Oregon sought local suppliers during protective gear scramble

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, Oregon and other states had to scramble to get protective masks for front-line medical workers, often importing them from China amid intense competition for a dwindling supply.

Now, for perhaps the first time, the state can access them from its own backyard.

Lighthouse Worldwide Solutions, based in Fremont, California, this week sent Oregon its first shipment of 600 N95 masks, produced at its manufacturing facility in Medford, said Debbie Dennis, Oregon’s chief procurement officer.

“To me, that’s a really big deal because until now we have had to go overseas to try to purchase those items,” Dennis said in a phone interview. Masks produced by a U.S. company, 3M, were hard to get amid the demand, she added.

“I think having our own N95 supplier here in Oregon is pretty amazing,” she said.

Under the state’s purchase order, Lighthouse is to provide 200,000 N95 masks per month for 12 months. They’ll initially cost $3.95 each but that should drop to around $3.25 as manufacturing becomes more efficient, Dennis said.

Oregon officials said they learned early during the pandemic that they needed to look locally for connections in the state to help source increasingly scarce personal protective equipment and to make it.

“We have worked to ensure that Oregon does not again face the personal protective equipment shortages we did in the spring, when the national stockpile and available supply was quickly depleted,” said Gov. Kate Brown’s spokesman, Charles Boyle.

With supplies from the strategic national stockpile being spotty, including masks with faulty elastic that could cause the straps to snap, Oregon had to quickly find large-volume sources to protect its doctors, nurses and other caregivers.

“It felt like overnight our supply chain became severely disrupted,” Dennis said. ”It was almost like we woke up one morning and we were competing with every government and every hospital in the state, and the country, and in the world for the very same thing.”

Officials had to beware of fraud, and suppliers began demanding prepayment of 50% or even 100%, Dennis said.

Business Oregon, a state agency, took the lead in vetting the hundreds of companies that were offering personal protective equipment. The Oregon Department of Administrative Services, where Dennis heads a team of 60, handled procurement.

“If it was an Oregonian that we had a relationship with, that we knew, then we would kind of pay attention to that more than we would these cold e-mails that were coming in that we didn’t know anything about,” Dennis said.

Data examined by The Associated Press showed that the state’s largest personal protective equipment supplier has been Blackstrap Industries, selling $26 million of masks. The Bend, Oregon-based company specializes in base-layer clothing and balaclavas used by skiers.

Blackstrap Industries’ Facebook page is adorned with photos and videos of skiers. It also has branched out into protective masks for the general public.

Before the pandemic, an N95 mask that filters out tiny particles might have cost around 50 cents. This spring, states paid an average of $3 each, according to the AP’s analysis. Some states paid more than $10 a mask to get them quickly.

On June 2, Oregon bought 5.4 million N95 masks from Blackstrap for $6.5 million, according to the data obtained by AP. That’s $1.20 per mask.

The company was concerned that Oregon hospitals would run out of personal protective equipment and used its connections in China to source masks, Dennis said.

“A lot of Oregonians really just wanted to do what they could to take care of other Oregonians, and I think that Blackstrap is a good example of that,” Dennis said.

On March 27, Oregon purchased 1.5 million KN95 masks from Blackstrap for $5.7 million, the data show. That’s about $3.80 per mask.

Blackstrap didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Focus Industries Med became registered as a company with the Oregon secretary of state’s office on April 1, and listed a Gold Beach, Oregon, address. The same day, the state purchased 1 million KN95 masks from Focus Industries, for $1.99 apiece. The state wound up buying $16 million worth of masks, gowns and gloves from Focus Industries Med.

Joshua Stout, listed as a company official, is an executive with Sant Pacific, a construction and real estate development company.

“When Josh realized what a huge need suddenly emerged, they quickly stood up a separate legal arm to their company, and that is what Focus Industries is,” Dennis said. She said Stout used Sant Pacific’s wide network of overseas contacts to source personal protective equipment.

The state has spent a total of about $125 million for protective equipment since the pandemic began, Dennis said.

Follow Andrew Selsky on Twitter at https://twitter.com/andrewselsky

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