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.”
BOONE — AppHealthCare, the regional health department, and Appalachian Regional Healthcare System said April 6 that they are following the guidance for use of cloth masks or face coverings by the general public as recently recommended by the CDC.
The CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
“We know that community transmission is occurring in North Carolina and even though we have a lower number of identified cases in our communities at this time, we believe additional tools should be added to our toolbox to help lessen the effects of COVID-19,” stated Jennifer Greene, AppHealthCare health director. “The use of cloth masks or face coverings by the general public should not replace social distancing and other everyday prevention measures like hand-washing, covering your cough or sneeze or staying home when you are sick.”
Rob Hudspeth, ARHS senior vice president for system advancement, said, “The use of cloth masks makes so much sense toward combatting the spread of COVID-19. As such, we encourage everyone to use them, particularly in public locations where social distancing is difficult to maintain.”
The use of cloth face coverings will not protect you from other people’s germs, the organizations noted — “it is meant to protect other people in case you are infected. This would be important if someone is infected with COVID-19 but does not have symptoms.”
According to the CDC, recent studies have suggested that COVID-19 may be spread by people who are not showing symptoms (asymptomatic or presymptomatic).
“This is why it remains important for people to stay home as much as possible and only go out for essential trips,” according to the statement.
Important Points About Cloth Masks and Face Coverings
Due to the short supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), surgical masks and N95 respirators should be reserved for health care workers and other first responders. A health care worker or first responder should continue to use surgical masks and N95 respirators since these provide better protection from infectious diseases.
The CDC provides guidance on instructions for how to make a cloth face covering for both sew and no sew options and using materials like fabric, t-shirt, and bandana at https://tinyurl.com/uxphvl2. You can also view a how-to video by Dr. Jerome Adams, U.S. Surgeon General, at https://youtu.be/tPx1yqvJgf4.
If you have surgical masks or N95 respirators and are willing to donate them, they can be dropped off at the front entrance of Charles A. Cannon Jr. Memorial Hospital in Linville or at the security checkpoint at Watauga Medical Center in Boone.
“We appreciate those in our community who are willing and able to make homemade face coverings,” AppHealthCare and ARHS said in the joint statement.
For more information, visit www.AppHealthCare.com or apprhs.org.
How to Protect Yourself & Others
People at high risk include anyone who:
If You Are Sick
BOONE — As experts try to predict when COVID-19 cases will peak in North Carolina, health officials urge the public to continue practicing social distancing — and one scorecard says Watauga residents are heeding the advice.
AppHealthCare Health Director Jennifer Greene spoke to the Watauga County Board of Commissioners on April 7 during a virtual meeting. According to Greene, a report was shared on April 6 with the N.C. legislature and state emergency management officials that indicated the state could see a peak of the pandemic on or near April 22.
The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics created a tool to evaluate COVID-19 projections, which as of April 7 indicated that North Carolina was only six days from a peak of resource use on April 13, and eight days from the projected peak of COVID-19-related daily deaths. The institute projected a total of 496 COVID-19 deaths by Aug. 4. For more information on the study, visit covid19.healthdata.org.
“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Greene said. “We’re just going to have to watch and see what happens.”
This information is a little different than what North Carolina experts have predicted. According to N.C. DHHS, a group of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Duke University, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of NC, NoviSci and RTI International released a composite modeling forecast on April 6 that examines COVID-19’s progression in the state in the coming months.
If the state maintains some forms of social distancing past April, the N.C. group anticipated the peak stress on available acute care capacity in its current estimates (which run through June 1) would likely occur in mid- to late May. The group predicted that if social distancing policies are lifted after April and not replaced by other similar policies to deter infection transmission, there would be a 50 percent chance that acute care beds would not be able to meet the demand from COVID-19 patients throughout NC.
“Our current best estimate is that if after April 29, we immediately return to the rates of viral transmission occurring prior to widespread social distancing, stress on hospitals to cope with rising demand from COVID-19 patients could begin as soon as Memorial Day,” the group stated in the report.
Greene continued to reiterate the importance of social distancing.
“We understand the incredible sacrifices that businesses are having to make,” Greene said. “Yet, we know if we act too soon to lift social distancing requirements, we are likely to see a surge in cases even more than we expect.”
Unacast, a New York-based company, has given states and counties grades of A through F based on how well they’ve been social distancing. The company states that it uses anonymous device location data, map data and strategic intelligence for businesses in industries such as retail, real estate, tourism, transportation and marketing industries.
Unacast data on April 5 showed that Watauga County had received a B- in its ranking of social distancing activities. The Boone Area Chamber stated at the time that a B- rating made Watauga one of eight counties out of the 100 in the state to score better than a C in the rankings. This ranking had changed to an A- by April 7 with a 70 percent decrease in average mobility (based on distance traveled).
For more information on the the Unacast tool, visit www.unacast.com/covid19/social-distancing-scoreboard.
With eight confirmed COVID-19 cases in the county, including seven residents and a traveler, each of the confirmed cases have all improved and were out of their isolation period or were nearly out their isolation period, Greene said on April 7. All cases were travel related and did not show signs of community transmission, according to Greene.
As of April 7, the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services reported 3,221 confirmed COVID-19 cases among 90 counties in N.C., with 46 deaths.
AppHealthCare has shifted its focus to testing specific groups of people for the virus, Greene said. She advised that the agency is limiting tests to those who in the hospital, congregate settings like long-term care facilities or college dorms, farm workers who might share housing, individuals at Hospitality House, health care workers, first responders and law enforcement officers.
With the help of the local LabCorp organization, Greene said it it now only taking about three days to get test results versus the previous wait period of seven to 10 days.
“We have to mitigate this virus and make sure that we aren’t using up all of our personal protective equipment that will be very critical in the days ahead should we have more hospital-based cases,” Greene said.
If a person has tested positive, they can be released from isolation if they are seven days out from when the symptoms began — three of which must be fever free without fever-reducing medicine — and they have to have an improvement in their symptoms, Greene said.
Health department staff continue to conduct contact tracing, meaning that when staff are notified of a positive case they conduct an interview and collect information about close contacts. Close contacts are typically people in the household or others that have been within six feet or closer from the person who is positive for 10 minutes or longer. Close contacts are instructed to stay home for 14 days and monitor their symptoms, Greene said.
BLOWING ROCK — In the span of two days, from April 2 to April 4, the town of Blowing Rock rallied together to show support for a young community member who lost his mother, Regina Greene Pelsmaeker, on Monday, March 30.
William Greene III is a sixth-grader at Blowing Rock School, and he is known by friends and community members to love dance, live productions and parades.
The effort, lovingly dubbed William’s Parade, was organized by Amber Hendley and Kristen Sokolnick, both of Blowing Rock, who saw the importance of abiding by social distancing guidelines and also wanted to remind William he’s not alone.
Both organizers have connections to the Greene family, making the loss close to their hearts. Hendley said that her son is best friends with William, and the families are neighbors.
“Just seeing all of the cars lined up before the parade — that was a sight,” said Hendley, who is also William’s clogging and dance instructor.
“With William out of school, he wouldn’t get the support from his peers that he would normally get. I wanted to get something in the works,” Sokolnicki said. “Amber and I got in contact with each other on Thursday. We spoke and got it all planned in two days.”
William’s Parade took place on April 4, as more than 150 cars lined up to pass by his home in Blowing Rock to share messages of hope, love and support as the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a private funeral service.
Many cars featured homemade posters and signs that were given to the family. Hendley said that she, Sokolnicki and other community members also made “big banners” and hung them over the parkway bridge and cemetery gates, so that the family would see them as they pulled up for the graveside service at Woodland Cemetery.
Community members remembered Regina and the love she had for her son during and after William’s Parade.
“She was a wonderful person,” said Patrick Sukow, principal of Blowing Rock School, who also noted that he has known William and his family since he was in kindergarten. “She had huge support of William, whether that be in academics or in dance.”
Blowing Rock Mayor Charlie Sellers has known her family for many years, as Regina’s father is a former Blowing Rock chief of police who died in the line of duty in 1963. Sellers and his wife, Deatra, led the vehicle processional, which lasted for about half an hour.
“Everyone was observing the distancing (guidelines). Police officers were out of cars, but everyone else stayed in their vehicles,” said Sellers. “It wasn’t only people from Blowing Rock — there were people there from Boone, Aho and down the mountain. It said a lot for uncertain times.”
Thomas Sherrill contributed reporting to this article.