GREENSBORO — The coronavirus pandemic has laid bare flaws in the system that supplies protective gear to health care workers fighting the infection.
But a Greensboro company is playing a vital role in helping to repair the broken system. Precision Fabrics Group is working overtime to expand its production of a special fabric for tens of thousands of protective gowns for hospital workers.
You may have heard about the desperate need for medical supplies.
Nurses and doctors in New York City, for example, can be seen on YouTube and national newscasts pleading for more of the kinds of personal protective suits and gowns that could make the difference between a well-protected worker and one vulnerable to COVID-19. Some have resorted to using trash bags or souvenir New York Yankees ponchos.
The suits that medical workers need often look more like space suits than trash bags.
One reason for the shortage is that much of the gear is bought by American hospitals and governments from around the globe — regions like China and Europe. These supply chains have been broken before that equipment can get to users in the United States, as health workers in those distant regions need the gear to fight their own pandemics.
Precision Fabrics has become a vital link in the new supply chain being set up to protect American health workers with fresh protective equipment.
The company’s factories in Vinton, Va., and Greensboro are now working around the clock to make fabric that a Phoenix company is using to make tens of thousands of protective gowns for health care workers at the front lines of patient care.
The suits that medical workers wear are often made of non-woven polypropylene and cost about $1 each for one-time use every time a professional encounters a patient. Doctors and nurses are being forced to wear them more than once, however, putting their own health at risk as they go from infected patient to patient.
San Francisco-based Dignity Health is struggling to change that, so the nation’s fifth-largest health system contacted Phoenix-based Arizona Fashion Source, which can make the suits, to speed up its production to fight the pandemic. Dignity is the largest health system in California and many Western states.
When the order came in, Arizona Fashion Source knew about Precision Fabrics’ reputation for special polyester fabrics that it could use.
Before the pandemic, Precision was making its fabric for use in reusable suits for clean rooms in the pharmaceutical and electronics industries. But the fabric is easily treated to repel microorganisms and liquid, just the type needed for medical protective suits, said Byron Bassett, Precision’s corporate vice president.
Three weeks ago Arizona Fashion Source called and asked for 60,000 yards of the company’s fabric to make 30,000 of the reusable suits.
“Within a matter of four or five days we had the 60,000 yards palletized and ready to go and we were ready to put it on a truck,” Bassett said. That would’ve taken another four or five days to reach Arizona.
For this urgent need, however, that wasn’t fast enough.
“We’re gonna send the Arizona National Guard to pick up the freight,” Bassett said they told him, to his great surprise.
So that’s what the Guard did: It flew a military tanker jet to Greensboro, refueling a couple of F-35 fighter jets in midair as it traveled, Bassett said, and landed on April 3 at a private hangar at Piedmont Triad International Airport. It picked up a truckload of fabric and headed back quickly to Phoenix.
The Arizona company will make 30,000 gowns that are reusable and can be washed up to 100 times each. They cost more, $20 apiece compared with $1 for the one-use gowns, but even with washing costs the gowns eventually allow the buyers to break even and, more important, preserve a steady supply of the essential equipment.
Bassett said that his company had a sense that higher demand was coming when it saw demand for equipment soar during the European pandemic in February. So it boosted production of the fabric and was almost ready when the Phoenix company called.
Now Precision’s 350 workers at the Meadowview Road plant are working three shifts around the clock, 13 days with one day off. Their job here is to treat the fabric that’s made in Virginia for health care use.
It’s crucial that those workers stay healthy, Bassett said, so they’re subject to health screening before every shift.
The company is working on three more orders for the fabric as the Phoenix company also boosts production to meet demand.
Bassett doesn’t expect demand for his company’s fabric to wane anytime soon. That’s because American health care companies and governments don’t want to be caught with broken supply chains again. So their goal is to find ways to make most of their required protective products in the United States.
Bassett said his company is proud to be a part of helping Dignity Health and also proud “that our employees stepped up in the textile industry to do what is considered undoable.
“It’s making a difference for patients.”