After nearly a year of ups and downs, the no-fun-at-all roller-coaster ride that is COVID-19 shows few signs of stabilizing in the immediate future.
For every bit of good news we get—newly reported COVID cases in the U.S. recently dropped below 100,000 for the first time this year, and hospitalizations have begun to decline—there are such developments as the more-contagious U.K. variant of the coronavirus predicted to spread rapidly in the U.S.
All of this points to continued challenges in the short term for the disposable glove industry: high demand, short supply, and prices nobody wants to pay.
Some good news has come out of the nation’s capital. The White House COVID-19 task force announced on Feb. 5 that the Biden administration plans to use the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of COVID-19 vaccines, surgical gloves, and at-home testing kits as part of an effort to increase supplies and reduce long-term dependence on foreign suppliers.
As welcome as that announcement is—there is very little production of personal protective equipment, especially disposable gloves, in the United States—it is still a drop in the bucket in relation to the number of gloves needed globally.
It will take years and multiple billions of dollars to create the infrastructure needed to increase glove production to anywhere near equilibrium with demand. Even if construction were to begin today on dozens of facilities for producing nitrile butadiene rubber in the U.S.—as well as the factories to turn that NBR into gloves—we could not expect to see any up and running in under a year.
Not in my backyard, thanks
Ask yourself, too, if you want a glove factory in your town. No? Didn’t think so. Also, whom do we hire to work in said factories? Sure, using domestic labor would help reduce unemployment, but it would also send the cost of gloves even higher.
Our best hope for getting a handle on the coronavirus remains improved and expanded vaccinations.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser, predicts that by April it will be “open season” for vaccinations in the U.S., with supplies increasing enough to allow most people to be inoculated. Biden announced last week that his administration has secured 200 million additional vaccine doses.
Bloomberg has built the biggest database of COVID-19 shots given around the globe, with more than 150 million doses administered worldwide. Bloomberg’s Vaccine Tracker shows that some countries are making far more rapid progress than others, using 75% coverage with a two-dose vaccine as a target. With vaccinations happening faster in richer Western countries, Bloomberg predicts it will take the world as a whole seven years at the current pace.
That means a continuing demand for disposable gloves and face masks well beyond 2021, especially in jobs that serve the public like retail and food service. Expect, too, an increased focus on health, hygiene, and safety going forward, which means a boon to the janitorial and sanitation industries.
School boards will be big glove customers
There is also the question of when schools will reopen. When they do, expect demand for gloves to take off even more—and vinyl to be a popular choice because of its lower cost and greater availability.
When will we return to “normal”? Hard to say. We should see continual improvement interrupted by occasional setbacks. The relentlessly optimistic (yet always realistic) Dr. Fauci has predicted a “strong semblance of normality” by early autumn, if vaccinations go well.
However events play out in 2021, expect disposable gloves to continue playing an important role in global recovery from COVID-19.