As the threat of COVID-19 hospital equipment shortages worry the country, companies are taking matters into their own hands. Three Boone businesses are using their abilities to make supplies for our community and others across the state and nation.
Boone Chamber of Commerce President David Jackson said that in late March, North Carolina invited eligible companies to make supplies needed to fight COVID-19. Jackson said two companies in Boone have stepped up to help, creating medical-grade equipment that will be used to test for and prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Manufacturing company Watauga Opportunities Inc., which provides employment opportunities for adults who have barriers to employment and community inclusion, is assembling and packaging sample collection vials used in COVID-19 test kits. The company packages test kits popularly seen on TV, president Michael Maybee said.
WOI assembles and packages raw goods for the German company Sarstedt, and the end product is sold across the country to users like CDC, NIH and National LabCorp.
WOI has been assembling sample collection vials for years, but around mid-March, Sarstedt’s test kit orders went sky high. WOI received the first part of a 750,000 vial order that they are still working on, Maybee said.
WOI is now packaging 60,000 vials a day and are trying to get up to 75,000 daily, Maybee said.
“If I understand it, each COVID test kit has two or three vials in it,” Maybee said. “So you can imagine if they’re looking for millions of test kits, I mean do the math.”
WOI is a medical manufacturing facility and has always taken sanitary precautions — but since the outbreak of COVID-19, it has increased precautionary measures. Surfaces and doorknobs that were sanitized once a day are now cleaned four times a day.
“When staff come in, in the morning or clients come in, their temperature is taken and they have to sanitize their hands before they’re let into the main plant,” Maybee said.
The vials are manufactured by Sarstedt and sent to WOI for packaging. Each vial is four to five inches long with a plastic lid. WOI workers secure the lid into place on the tube, then package and seal it with calibrated machines. WOI sends the packaged product back to Sarstedt.
“Then they sterilize them and send them off to whoever’s putting the kits together, be it LabCorp, Centers for Disease Control, whoever,” Maybee said.
Maybee said the manufacturing staff of 25 has increased to 35-40 people because of the demand for these test kits. The company funds its nonprofit mission through profits made from manufacturing.
Another company helping the cause is Tsuga, a textile engineer company known for making canopies, beach shelters and other outdoor equipment. It will be making ready-to-use hospital grade masks and mask assembly kits.
The company has always done military cut and sew, owner Jimmi Combs said. After getting fabric tested and approved, supplies should arrive this week for production to begin. Weekly, the company hopes to produce 6,000 ready-to-wear masks and cut material for 100,000 unassembled masks in kits.
Combs said there will likely be material for 1,000 masks per kit, because that is the minimum a manufacturer can order from the Carolina Textile District.
Carolina Textile District is a group of textile manufacturers in North and South Carolina and beyond, according to its website. Combs said Tsuga is one of about 14 members. CTD Founder Molly Hemstreet reached out to members and spearheaded the group’s COVID-19 response.
“We just saw that, as a community, we needed to kind of help out and get these things out,” Combs said. “And at a low cost, just what it’s costing us to produce them. There’s no profiteering here. There’s no price gouging, strictly covering our overhead and our cost.”
Eight workers are placed on the project. Combs said he might hire more workers or volunteers if needed, as the company is still fulfilling regular orders.
For interested customers, volunteers or companies looking to donate fabric, visit www.carolinatextiledistrict.com.
Textile facility Misty Mountain, which specializes in climbing equipment, will be helping the local community more directly. Founder Goose Kearse said the company was looking for ways to help around mid-March and decided to create cloth masks for the public.
Kearse has operated Misty Mountain for 31 years, but prior to that, he worked in hospital products manufacturing. Kearse said he quickly understood without certain equipment, his company could not make medical-grade equipment. Therefore, he decided on cloth masks.
The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, according to its website on April 3.
“My understanding is that recommendation has finally come down to us, based on the fact that people can have the coronavirus and not show any symptoms whatsoever,” Kearse said. “So if they’re out running around and talking to people and not wearing masks, that is a great source of infection that we can’t track.”
Production started on March 30, Kearse said, and he expects it to be a small-scale project, sold to local community members and friends. Interested buyers can call Misty Mountain at (828) 963-6688 to place an order.
Jackson said a number of other businesses applied to help in Boone, but they have not been called yet to do something specific.
“This is how the High Country tends to respond to things, whether that’s a very micro, local level, or being able to help out in the state or national issues,” Jackson said. “It has been nothing short of inspiring to see how quickly people were eager and willing to get into the supply chain, by the way to lend their expertise to help.”