What started as an order in March for 750,000 sample collection vials for COVID-19 test kits has turned into almost 10 million vials assembled and collected by the staff at Watauga Opportunities Inc.
Watauga Opportunities President Michael Maybee explained that WOI provides services for adults with disabilities, and houses a manufacturing operation to train people with disabilities while also using the manufacturing as a funding engine for WOI services. Approximately half of the agency’s operating revenue comes from money made through manufacturing.
Maybee said the agency provides surgical and lab supplies to a company called Sarstedt, which then sells the manufactured items across the country to users like the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and National LabCorp. WOI receives large boxes with of the vials, and its up to them to assemble the vials and seal them in bags according to the size of the order. After the initial order of 750,000 collection vials, WOI received an order for 1 million in April.
“The orders just kept on coming,” Maybee said. “They contacted us in September wanting us to ramp up to do 2 million a month.”
Maybee estimated that the agency should reach the 10 million mark of vials assembled and packaged since March by the end of December. WOI still manufactures supplies for other areas such as the dental or orthopedics industry as well as speciality trays for chocolate companies, but production of COVID-19 vials has “taken over” at WOI, he said.
WOI has more than 100 employees overall at the agency — more than what the agency had pre-COVID-19 — with about 20 to 25 employees assembling and packaging the supplies. Orders are filled in the facility’s three Food and Drug Administration approved controlled environment rooms. Mask wearing and health screenings prior to entering the building are required for WOI employees. The agency also hasn’t allowed any visitors. As WOI works with individuals with disabilities who are at risk if they contract COVID-19, the agency is being vigilant in safety efforts.
In the last year, WOI has served approximately 751 clients through various services. As WOI offers vocational services for adults throughout Northwest North Carolina, Maybee said the agency has placed almost 1,400 people with disabilities in jobs in the community in the last 25 years. The agency stopped hosting in person activities with clients in April, and started seeing clients virtually.
Maybee said staff members have hosted Zoom classes with activities such as Zumba or discussions about social skills. The agency started to welcome back clients in person in July with the start of the state’s phase three, but has still offered virtual classes and services to those with disabilities who wish to remain at home.
Some clients who were placed in the community in various businesses have continued to go to work while others have opted to stay home until metrics improve. Maybee said some businesses have been accommodations for WOI clients, such as an area pizza business that made a separate space for a WOI client who helps to make pizza boxes so they can be socially distant from others.
WOI continues to provide its Pre-Employment Transition Services to students in 25 different high schools, now both virtually and in person. Traditionally the program preparing students for life after high school and allows students to sample types of jobs they may enjoy by going to job sites. WOI staff are offering virtual job sampling opportunities to help students learn the details of what a specific job could be.
The agency also offers two group homes: one with clients who are able to return to in person services, and one that is still staying at home due to the age of those in the home. Maybee said the agency has “created a bubble” around the home to protect the clients from COVID-19 with the same cohort of staff continuing to work in that home. Those who enter go through a health screening and have their temperature taken at the door, he said.
Maybee said he’s proud of WOI staff and the work they’ve been able to do during the COVID-19 pandemic. He said the staff have tried to just “keep calm and carry on.”
“We decided that our guiding philosophy was going to be, ‘this is nothing more than an opportunity for excellence,’” Maybee said. “We want to be able to look back at the end of this with pride with what we’ve done.”
For more information on Watauga Opportunities Inc., visit www.woiworks.org.