April 01, 2020
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This Guilford company is one of the world’s top 2 makers of COVID-19 testing swabs

Scott Sharpe | AP
Scott Sharpe | AP
Family nurse practitioner Schquthia Peacock prepares to do a nasal swab to test for coronavirus with patient in a car in the parking lot of Preston Medical Associates in Cary, N.C., Tuesday afternoon, March 17, 2020.

As of 11:30 a.m. Monday, March 23, 107 Maine residents have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus, according to the state. Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support this mission by purchasing a digital subscription.

A Piscataquis County company that makes medical testing swabs is at the center of the national effort to ramp up testing for the coronavirus that has infected more than 200,000 people across the globe.

Puritan Medical Products Co., which is a part of a Guilford manufacturing business with about 550 employees, is one of the top two makers of the specialized testing swabs that are desperately needed in areas hit by the virus, according to Kaiser Health News.

But the company has struggled to keep up with the new demand, in part because it has had trouble hiring more workers, said Timothy Templet, a co-owner of Puritan’s parent company, Hardwood Products Company LP. It also needs additional equipment to produce the swabs often used in the testing for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, he said.

“It’s been staggering,” Templet said of the new demand for COVID-19 testing supplies. “It’s just staggering: the call volumes, the purchase-order volumes, the conversations with many government agencies and the higher-ups in the big distribution chains.”

Made of plastic shafts and synthetic fibers, the specialized swabs must be long and thin enough to reach the back of the nose. The samples collected on them are sent to qualified laboratories for testing.

While demand has surged, Templet said the company has not had trouble acquiring the raw materials to make the swabs.

While Templet couldn’t put a figure on the new demand, he said that customer service representatives at Puritan Medical Products have been “swamped” by calls not just from distributors, but also from the hospitals and clinics on the far end of the supply chain.

Because of the pandemic, Templet said that all employees have been coming in on the weekends to meet the new demand. One of the greatest challenges has been finding enough staff to operate the machines that place individual swabs into sterilized wrapping materials.

For Puritan Medical Products to meet the current need for its products, Templet said it would have to add about 30 more employees on top of an estimated 300 who currently work there. The company now produces between 800,000 and 1 million of the swabs used for COVID-19 testing per week, which is on top of its production of other types of swabs for regular customers.

“They’re tired, and we’re concerned about them,” he said of the current workers.

The U.S. has been expanding its ability to diagnose COVID-19, but a shortage of swabs has been among the factors holding up testing in places such as Missouri, Washington and Michigan, according to Kaiser Health News. The news outlet has identified Puritan Medical Products and a company based in Italy, Copan Diagnostics Inc., as the top two producers of the much-needed testing swabs.

In Maine, where at least 56 presumed cases of the illness have been identified, state health officials have also expressed concern about whether there’s an adequate supply of nasal swabs and other testing materials. At least one prominent Bangor-area health care provider, Penobscot Community Health Care, has said its supply of swabs is low.

Puritan Medical Products is part of a family company, Hardwood Products Company LP, that started out making toothpicks but soon expanded into medical products such as tongue depressors and wood applicators, according to its website.

Over the past century, it has grown into a major supplier of specialized testing materials, with large customers including Boeing, Coca-Cola, Idexx Laboratories and Stanford University. Now the largest employer in Piscataquis County, it brings in annual revenue of more than $55 million.

But the future of the business is uncertain after Templet recently filed a lawsuit against his cousin and fellow co-owner, John Cartwright. In that lawsuit, Templet argued that he and Cartwright have deadlocked over the future of the company. While Templet would like it to invest more in things such as wage increases and equipment upgrades and entertain outside offers to buy the company, he alleged that Cartwright has opposed the changes.

Cartwright did not return a call seeking comment at the time the lawsuit was filed, and Templet declined to specifically comment on it this week.

But one claim about Puritan Medical Products in his Feb. 19 lawsuit now looks prescient. “Its business is thriving,” he said in the complaint, and the demand for its products is “growing.”

 


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