Blue Cross NC teams up with North Carolina providers, experts to manufacture N95 masks

Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina is teaming up with prominent providers and companies in the state to manufacture N95 respirators for healthcare workers.

The Made in NC initiative is a public-private partnership that also includes North Carolina State University's Nonwoven Institute, Freudenberg Performance Materials, UNC Health, the NC Healthcare Strategic Partners and NC Medical Society, and aims to manufacture the masks and then distribute them in the communities most in need of personal protective equipment during the pandemic.

Demand for N95 masks has outpaced supply by wide margin as COVID-19 spread. Made in NC intends to produce 100,000 to 200,000 per month initially, and ramp up production going forward.

The partners expect to produce up to 2 million N95 masks per year through the initiative.

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“Blue Cross NC is committed to the health and well-being of all North Carolinians, and we are proud to be part of this initiative to ensure that vital PPE remains available to frontline health care workers in the continued fight against COVID-19,” said Tunde Sotunde, M.D., CEO at Blue Cross NC, in a statement.

“This unique collaboration brings together health care, education and private industry at an unprecedented time to help solve an unpredictable challenge," Sotunde said. "We are all working together toward a common goal of protecting those who continue to protect the people and communities across our state.”

Each of the partners is taking on a unique role in the initiative. Blue Cross NC will invest $450,000 to buy two molding machines to make the masks, as well as the supplies needed to produce them.

The Nonwovens Institute will work to develop a new spunbond material that would be usable as a cost-effective filter for N95 masks that need additional filtration layers, as well as new meltblown filter media for N95 respirators, according to the announcement. Freudenberg Performance Materials will bring manufacturing expertise to install, operate and maintain converting lines.

UNC Health's infection control experts will monitor the design and manufacture of the masks to ensure they meet health and safety standards, while NC Healthcare Association Strategic Partners and NC Medical Society will assist with purchase and distribution, reaching out to providers to gauge need and accelerate orders if necessary.

“Our North Carolina health care providers and frontline workers need more reliable sources of PPE at reasonable and predictable prices—exactly the goal of this collaboration,” said Wesley Burks, M.D., CEO of UNC Health.

“The top priority at all times is the safety of our frontline workers, especially during this pandemic," Burks said. "N95 masks are among the most important tools because they filter out droplets and smaller airborne particles that can carry viruses.”