When Puritan Medical Products celebrated its 100th birthday early last year, it may have struck outsiders as a big deal for the family-owned Guilford company.
Little did anyone know what 2020 had in store for the business, which is one of just two companies worldwide that makes specialized medical testing swabs.
In February, one of Puritan’s owners sued the other, his cousin, over deep disagreements about the future of its parent company.
Then, almost before the ink had dried on that suit, the global coronavirus pandemic flared in the U.S., causing the demand for medical swabs to skyrocket and forcing Puritan to rapidly expand with the help of $75.5 million from the federal government.
Now, a company with little name recognition outside Piscataquis County has suddenly been thrust into the national spotlight by a visit from President Donald Trump on Friday. Trump will also hold a discussion with fisheries stakeholders in Bangor.
Timothy Templet, the co-owner and executive vice president of Puritan who filed the lawsuit against his cousin earlier this year, declined to share details about the president’s visit, but said Trump can expect “a warm reception” in the factory.
“I think that our people who have worked very, very hard this March, all of us, are honored that he is coming here and taking the time to come to Maine,” Templet said.
Puritan employs about 380 workers at its Guilford plant after going on a hiring spree over the last couple months, Templet said. He said the staffing levels in the plant should be about normal during the president’s visit, which is expected to spark protests in Bangor, where the president will land, and has received pushback from Gov. Janet Mills, a Democrat. (Protest organizers have urged demonstrators to stay out of Guilford.)
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Now, the company is recruiting at least 150 additional workers for a second plant that it expects to open in Pittsfield in July using the $75.5 million from the feds, more than doubling its production of a type of swab that can be used to test for COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. It has also set aside a long-running legal dispute with its competitor, Copan Diagnostics of Italy, which has accused Puritan of patent infringement, so that both companies can focus on ramping up production during the pandemic.
Federal health officials started reaching out to the Maine company in mid-March to see how it could increase its output to meet the new demands of the pandemic, its chief financial officer, Scott Wellman, said last month.
But working with the feds did not come naturally to the Maine operation, which is part of a larger parent group, Hardwood Products Company LP, that also makes popsicle sticks and skewers. Only after a flurry of dealings with White House officials, federal agencies, other companies and Maine’s two U.S. senators did the recent expansion start to take shape.
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Without naming Puritan, Trump said during an April 19 news briefing that he planned to invoke the Defense Production Act to increase swab production by 20 million per month at a U.S. facility and cryptically added that the White House was having “a little difficulty” with the company.
Trump’s trade adviser, Peter Navarro, soon clarified that the White House was planning to award funding to Puritan to help the country expand testing to meet the public health threat of the coronavirus.
“More jobs in the factories of Maine, more opportunities for Maine commercial fishermen,” Navarro said on a Thursday call with state reporters. “That’s the message this president will be bringing to the great state of Maine tomorrow.”
BDN writer Michael Shepherd contributed to this report.