Murry Pitts knew in March he’d need to make changes at his medical production company.
Most states hadn’t yet ordered social distancing, closed restaurant dining rooms or halted elective medical procedures, but his sales staff were already having trouble getting in the door of medical facilities. Hospitals and other health care providers were limiting who could come into their buildings.
Pitts, CEO of Burlington Medical in Newport News, could see the market for his company’s lead-lined aprons would dry up for a period of time, so he thought about how he could keep his staff of more than 100 people working.
The answer: all of the personal protective equipment that is now in extreme demand and short supply.
Instead of protecting health care workers from radiation, his company is now producing surgical and cloth masks, disposable gowns, face shields, protective eyewear, incubation boxes and disinfecting wipes to protect them from the coronavirus.
Pitts said he even got a call from Gov. Ralph Northam and Dan Carey, the state’s secretary of health and human resources, requesting the company reach out to sell those products to hospitals first.
Pitts, who has roots in Norfolk and graduated from Old Dominion University, was glad to oblige.
The company produces up to 15,000 surgical masks in a week, Pitts said. The company also is selling plastic face shields to the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office and Pitts is exploring how he can help Virginia nursing homes and long-term care facilities.
“There’s really a lot more of a need than we realized,” Pitts said. “We can’t produce (PPE) fast enough, so we want to provide (those items) to the people who need them most.”
Lee Ann Fachko, the company’s senior vice president of global operations, said when they announced the shift in production to their staff, there was an emotional reaction. Some other companies were announcing layoffs and furloughs, she said.
“It’s important to help others right now,” added Maria Sada, a team leader.
Burlington Medical occupies a nondescript pair of beige buildings in the far north of Newport News, a less crowded area that’s typically quiet except for when a train goes by. Inside the workroom, there’s a steady hum of sewing machines and other equipment. Employees don masks as they work — some with the generic white covering, some custom made. One man wore a repurposed Crown Royal bag.
Staff designers who typically focus on customizing aprons to be more comfortable and hospital-chic developed templates for masks and gowns.
As he pointed out the various stitches on a surgical mask, Pitts said making these items is more intricate work than making the aprons. But, he said, all of his employees who use sewing machines had the skills to adjust.
Sada said the change wasn’t difficult, but there were several types of gowns and masks they had to learn how to make.
During the pandemic, Burlington has actually expanded. The company has brought on 10 temporary employees and outsourced some of the sewing of cloth masks. Pitts said the company pays some people to come by and pick up materials and then return with a pile of masks they made at home.
Pitts said the struggles some companies are experiencing providing protective equipment, and the inability of some manufacturers to fulfill orders, shows problems in the supply chain. Looking ahead, he hopes to see more domestic companies supplying materials and producing protective equipment.
Burlington Medical may continue making some of the masks and face shields once the demand for their protective aprons is back to normal. Pitts anticipates that even as the pandemic subsides, concerns will persist regarding the spreading infection.
“The world is changed,” he said.