PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Acme Monaco’s Presque Isle plant has long produced catheter guidewires used to treat heart issues in hospitals across the United States and around the world. But never has their mission seemed so crucial.
Production on the wires has gone up 55 percent since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, as hospitals stock up on supplies needed to treat millions of patients suffering from symptoms of the virus, said co-President Rebecca Karabin-Ahern.
The Aroostook County plant’s part in the medical response to the COVID-19 pandemic reflects an international role for a county many perceive as isolated. Equipment intricately constructed by workers at the Presque Isle plant will eventually be used to treat patients in the United States, Germany, France and Brazil. Yet, even as sales skyrocket, the plant is still not working at capacity.
Acme Monaco, which sells to medical suppliers that sell to hospitals, said it doesn’t have enough employees to keep up with demand, a common issue in a region where many companies have experienced worker shortages. It currently has 58 employees, but usually has 75 — several have retired and it is currently in a growth stage.
“We cannot make these fast enough and get them to our customers around the world,” Karabin-Ahern said.
The guidewires are most commonly used for COVID-19 patients experiencing strokes or cardiac issues, often to deliver a stent to the heart for people on ventilators or coming off of them. Although COVID-19 is more commonly associated with respiratory complications, many patients — especially those with pre-existing heart conditions — have experienced life-threatening stroke and cardiac issues from the virus.
Sales have been especially prominent in Brazil, which has seen more than 3 million COVID-19 cases, though many orders may not arrive in the country for up to six months due to issues with the country’s Customs. Karabin-Ahern said the problem had existed long before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a shame because we do everything we can to get the product out the door,” Karabin-Ahern said. “But, then it gets hung up on their end when it gets to Customs.”
Acme Monaco’s global connections had informed them of potential dangers from the pandemic early on. One of its facilities is in Singapore, a country that had 100 COVID-19 cases by the end of February during a time when cases in the more populous United States hovered around two dozen.
Seeing the risk the virus could bring to the United States, Acme Monaco began instituting regulations at its Presque Isle facility, including a mask requirement, temperature checks and mandatory handwashing, strictly maintaining those rules for the past six months.
“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been able to prevent it from coming into this workplace,” Karabin-Ahern said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread around the United States since March, medical manufacturers have seen many of their products take on new uses as the world faces down the first global pandemic of such a magnitude in 100 years.
This is not the only foray into fighting the COVID-19 pandemic. Acme Monaco — which is based in New Britain, Connecticut — is also in the early stages of working on a spring that will go into a rapid COVID-19 test.
The company has operated in Presque Isle since 1989. Besides its production of catheter guidewires, it is also one of the foremost producers of orthodontic equipment in the world, about 90 percent of which is produced in Presque Isle.
In 2017, it moved from two locations in Presque Isle’s Skyway Industrial Park to a new 16,300-square-foot facility on Central Drive. In 2019, U.S. Sen. Susan Collins toured the facility, saying that it disproved the belief that there are no “good jobs” in Aroostook County.
Karabin-Ahern said the company has always taken their work very seriously, knowing that the quality of the equipment it constructs could be paramount in life-or-death situations. She said the COVID-19 pandemic has made their role feel more important than ever.
“You have to be publicly responsible. Especially with products that we are making — they are going in somebody’s body,” Karabin-Ahern said. “This could be used on my grandmother. You have to think about who the end-user is.”