The goal of Hardwire, an armor manufacturer in Pocomoke City, has always been about improving the “survivability of human beings.”
For 19 years that’s meant supplying military-strength armor to clients across the world, but now it means producing face shields for doctors and nurses as they battle the novel coronavirus.
The company sprang into action after it started to hear horror stories about how serious the COVID-19 pandemic was becoming, CEO George Tunis said.
In the span of a week, Hardwire went from building armor to help protect soldiers from improvised explosives to trying to protecting health care workers from an enemy invisible to the naked eye.
Developing a new type of face shield required long hours, sleepless nights and many cups of coffee, Tunis said, but in the span of about 10 days Hardwire designed, tested, refined, retested and now manufacturers thousands of shields a day.
The shields came at a critical time for Atlantic General Hospital in Berlin, said Michael Franklin, the hospital’s president and CEO.
“We were out of face shields,” Franklin said. “We were using goggles from Lowes and Home Depot. They had provided us with a lot of regular safety goggles and one of the paint stores in town also brought over all their safety goggles.”
When Tunis approached Franklin about the idea of producing face shields, the two immediately began working together.
Within a couple days, Tunis dropped off the first prototypes at Franklin’s home and after rounds of testing by doctors and nurses, Hardwire finalized its face shield and began rolling out them out as quickly as possible, Tunis said.
“Using the words of my friend in Italy who’s just a brilliant engineer, he said the virus is very clever and, if you want to survive through this, he says you need to be equally clever,” Tunis said.
More than 100 face shields were assembled after its first day of production, Tunis said. Four days later, the company has manufactured 12,000 in total, with an additional 7,000 face shields being built just in one day alone.
The time for America to prepare for this disaster won’t be during the peak of the pandemic, it’s before, as he puts it. In order to meet that demand, Hardwire is working days, nights and weekends to get shields out to those in need.
The motivation behind such an endeavor isn’t just a professional goal, it’s a personal mission for many at Hardwire, including Tunis.
In the midst of developing the face shield, Tunis learned one of his best friends died from COVID-19, Tunis said. That tragedy made the threat “all too real for me,” and motivated him to work around the clock to manufacture face shields to hopefully save a life.
“I’m worried to death for my mom and dad. So if we can stop the spread of the virus even a little bit, the people we save might be my college kids, my young infant, it might be my mom or dad,” Tunis said. “I didn’t think it would get (my friend) of all people.”
FROM BODY ARMOR TO FACE SHIELDS
Standing outside in the cold behind one of his buildings, Tunis has worked nearly nonstop on the face shields, he said. In one week, Tunis estimated he lost about 7 pounds from working so much.
Recalling from his sleep-deprived memory, Tunis said the company first become aware of how serious the pandemic was when he got a desperate plea for help from America’s largest police department.
“Sunday night I got a call from the fleet manager from the NYPD — and we’ve armored every car and truck in the entire police force for the NYPD ... and they described the scene as apocalyptic and said whatever we can do get shields up here, do it,” Tunis said.
That’s when the idea of helping began, Tunis said. The company started to do its research and found out just how critical medical supplies like personal protective equipment was needed.
That’s when Tunis called Franklin at AGH and asked what kind of shortages the hospital was dealing with, Tunis said.
When Franklin told him that AGH was out of face shields, Tunis saw an opportunity for Hardwire to draw from its military expertise, he said.
Because Hardwire produces armor for the military, in particular the transparent armor it supplies to the U.S. Marine Corp., Hardwire decided to manufacture a new type of face shield, Tunis said.
By March 20, engineers had designed a new face shield and, within 48 hours, had the first prototype created, Tunis said. By March 23, the first prototypes were at Franklin’s house and on their way to getting tested.
“The light-weight and cleanable and reusability were key,” Franklin said. “One of biggest problems is the fact that so much of what we use is disposable so with that we need manufacturers to make more because we’re throwing everything away after we use it one time.”
Franklin brought the first box of face shields into the hospital March 24 and handed them out with Sharpies to nurses and doctors, Franklin said. The health care workers marked up the shields with feedback and, by that night, Hardwire was producing new and improved versions.
The company settled on its final design after a few more rounds of testing March 27, immediately putting them into production, Tunis said.
Since then the company has already ramped up production, Tunis said, with the goal of producing at least 60,000 shields a day as quickly as possible.
On just the fourth day of production alone, Hardwire manufactured a shield every 40 seconds, Tunis said. To meet the demand, the company is hiring college students, unemployed workers from the hospitality industry and anyone willing to contribute.
“This virus is spreading exponentially so every hour counts. So getting into production in meaningful levels is so important,” Tunis said. “You can’t make 10 of something and think you’re making a meaningful dent in it. The right number is 60,000-100,000 a day. You need to be at that level.”
THIS FIGHT IS PERSONAL
Tunis found out about the death of his childhood friend during the craze of developing the face shield, he said.
A few days later in the middle of producing those shields, Tunis and many of his childhood friends got together using Zoom to hold a small, informal funeral for Hargarten, Tunis said.
Tunis said that in the days since he’s had time to process the loss of his friend but “it’s still weird to talk about,” he added.
He “ was in the class above me,” Tunis said. “He was hilarious. He made all of us laugh. He beat me up 100 times, but he was the cool kid you wanted to know in school.”
Even after college Tunis stayed in contact with his childhood friend, he said. In the last few weeks though, Tunis had no idea his friend had been sick.
Tunis said still surprised by it.
He “was probably the last person I thought might perish from this, so it really hit home and it drove us even harder,” Tunis said.
Tunis isn’t the only one with a personal connection to COVID-19.
Valerie Green, an industrial engineer at Hardwire, has a sister and mother that both work at a hospital in Newport News, Virginia.
Thinking about her family on the front lines is what partially motivates Green. She says she’s doing her part to help health care workers protect themselves so they can protect others.
“I think about my sister who’s an RN and she’s pleading with people to stay home because she can’t,” Green said. “She has to be at the hospital and report to work whether she wants to or not.”
Ryan Wendell, CFO of Hardwire, also has a personal connection to health care’s fight against COVID — his wife is a health care worker in Salisbury.
Protective equipment was running low at his wife’s facility, Wendell said, so fearing they’d run out of supplies completely, the staff locked up all its masks and shields to make sure they’d still have some if a patient with COVID-19 came in.
When Hardwire began producing face shields, Wendell immediately gave his wife 10 to bring to her office, he said. The office then ordered an additional 40. That was rewarding to Wendell — to manufacture something that protects people.
“We make products to improve the survivability of humans, so a face shield is no different than a piece of body armor for a soldier,” Wendell said. “That’s really the motivation, to provide face shields for anyone in the medical industry or anyone to help protect themselves and help them survive if they’re faced with this epidemic.”
SMALL COMPANIES ‘CAN MAKE A FUNDAMENTAL DIFFERENCE’
Face shields are an important piece of equipment for health care workers, said Sarah Arnett, chief nursing officer at Peninsula Regional Medical Center in Salisbury. Worn together with N95 masks, they offer health care workers multiple layers of protection from COVID-19.
“The N95 masks actually filter the air that the staff is breathing and then, if the face shield is over that mask, it actually prevents the droplets from going directly into the person’s face, whether they have a mask on or not, it’s just another added barrier,” Arnett said.
PRMC doctors and nurses are required to use N95 masks and face shields when they have a close encounter with a patient, meaning they step within 6 feet, Arnett said.
Making sure to protect health care workers is critical, especially when the COVID-19 pandemic will only get worse in the coming weeks, said AGH’s Franklin.
As more positive cases show up at hospitals, facilities will have to keep beds open or create more, Franklin said. Creating more beds won’t be effective though if health care workers contract COVID-19 and can’t work.
“We’ve got to make sure that we have the right tools and the protection for the nurses and the doctors so when we’re in the height of this storm, I don’t have a lot of people who are on the sidelines sick or even people dying because they’ve been infected,” Franklin said.
Nationally, medical supplies are in high demand as stockpiles run low, according to USA TODAY. A U.S. Conference of Mayors survey found that 88% of more than 200 cities in 41 states said they had an inadequate supply of personal protective equipment.
To try and meet that demand, large companies such as Ford have begun manufacturing face shields.
Ford began sending its face shields to New York City and is producing tens of thousands of shields a day, with the goal of producing 1 million a week, according to the Detroit Free Press.
Hardwire is a much smaller company than Ford, but has similar ambitions to supply upward of a 100,000 face shields a day, Tunis said. To meet that goal the company is buying up all the raw materials possible and flying equipment in from around the world.
The magic number, Tunis said, is 10 million. That’s how many face shields he estimates are needed as soon as possible.
Reaching that goal quickly is important, Tunis said. The shields are needed now to prepare for the peak of COVID-19 cases, not during or after.
As he put it: “You can’t put plywood on your house in the middle of a hurricane.”
Whether it’s face shields for doctors or armor for soldiers, both missions fit into the company’s mission statement of improving the “survivability of human beings,” Tunis said.
That’s what keeps Tunis going — the hope of saving even one life from dying of COVID-19.
“Our friends in New York City are in trouble and our friends in Baltimore, Washington and most of the big metropolitan areas are going to be in trouble and the doctors and nurses are just getting hammered,” Tunis said. “We can make a fundamental difference in their survivability — and, honestly, I can’t describe how good that feels to do.”