AUGUSTA, Maine — Calls from the Maine health and hospital officials for manufacturers in the state to make medical supplies have been met with enthusiasm as businesses look to help and stay afloat amid the new coronavirus epidemic.
But coordinating activities and retooling production also takes time and some vital pieces of medical equipment will be difficult to make in-state.
As of Thursday, 155 cases of the coronavirus were confirmed in Maine, with 22 hospitalizations. Shortages of medical equipment are a concern in Maine and across the country, as states find themselves competing for a limited number of essential supplies and releases from the federal stockpile have been slow.
Maine has received two shipments from the stockpile so far, but Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said Thursday that the state might not get more personal protective equipment from the federal government “for the time being,” as officials have indicated that supplies are likely to go first to the hardest-hit areas, such as New York City, where more than 200 people have died from the virus.
Shah told reporters that the Maine CDC would be looking toward in-state manufacturers as a way to “fill some of that gap.”
Lisa Martin, executive director of the Manufacturers Association of Maine, said businesses responded vigorously after the trade association put out a call last weekend seeking manufacturers who can retool or repurpose operations to make tools useful for the epidemic.
“It’s just been an amazing outpouring of people stepping up because they can,” Martin said.
Martin said the association consulted with the supply chain division at MaineHealth, the state’s largest hospital group, to assess what providers might need. The group also worked with the Associated General Contractors of Maine to find construction gear, such as gloves, that could be donated to health care providers.
Hospitals still need additional equipment, with MaineHealth asking for masks, thermometers, face shields, hand sanitizer and disposable gowns, among other supplies. Shah, the Maine CDC director, has said that the state is looking to acquire up to 300 additional ventilators, a breathing device for critically ill patients.
Surgical masks, which are made from cloth, are a relatively smooth transition for businesses including L.L. Bean, which offered to convert its Brunswick production facility to produce medical gear. The Gorham company Flowhold has gone from making outdoor gear to plastic face shields, while breweries and distilleries have diverted some production to make hand sanitizer.
“Manufacturing is really in the forefront,” Martin said. “It has always been important for the economy, but this is definitely one of the examples that shows how important this sector is in so many ways.”
Some essential medical supplies will still be difficult to produce in Maine, however. Respiratory equipment, Martin said, would be a challenge because it requires parts often sourced from different places. She added that manufacturers in Maine could run into issues if there were a shortage of materials as many states are looking for ways to boost production of the same few supplies, though she said that had not been an issue so far.
For now, many businesses are still figuring out how they might be able to contribute. David Whitney, CEO of Downeast Packaging Solutions, a Whitneyville-based assembly company whose corporate clients include L.L. Bean, said the company, which had seen its regular business drop significantly in response to the outbreak, was one of the groups that reached out about helping respond to the coronavirus.
“What we’ve been hearing is that there’s a lot of compiling of names of companies that are ready to move, and we’re hearing there’s a lot of demand to assemble products,” Whitney said. “But what I have not found yet is any decision makers of entities that have projects for us to assemble, package and distribute.”
Still, he said the company had made inroads and was hoping to have an opportunity soon.
“We’re just trying to find a way to help,” he said. “We’re ready to go.”