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April 6, 2020

Local Manufacturers Rush to Aid SC Hospitals in Time of Need

Hospitals across the state are searching for personal protective equipment (PPE) to safeguard staff as they respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Now, two resourceful South Carolina manufacturers are pitching in to help, using their textiles, stitching and sewing capabilities to turn damaged N95 surgical masks into usable products.

In his role as the South Carolina Hospital Association’s director of disaster preparedness, John Williams is helping direct SCHA’s response to the COVID-19 emergency. When he learned that Prisma Health Tuomey in Sumter had located thousands of unusable N95 surgical masks that would be discarded because their damaged elastic bands wouldn’t hold the masks in place, he knew something had to be done.

“I started trying to think outside the box about what could be done to repurpose those masks. I found a news article about a company in Landrum that produces elastic for other products and wondered if it would possible to replace the elastic,” he said.

That company is Phenix Engineered Textiles, a manufacturer of high-quality woven, knitted and braided textiles. CEO Rod Gandry was quick to respond to SCHA’s inquiry. “I emailed him five minutes after talking to John, and he emailed me back within five minutes,” said Melanie Matney, SCHA’s system chief operating officer.

The only problem, Gandry said, was that they didn’t have the capability to attach the elastic to the masks. But he knew who would.

Enter Sleep Number, the smart bed company, and its manufacturing plant in Irmo. The Sleep Number plant has the sewing and stitching capability to attach new elastic bands to the still-usable masks.

“At Sleep Number, our mission is to improve lives,” said Hunter Mottel, director of Sleep Number’s Irmo Manufacturing Operations. “In this case, we are leveraging our capabilities and resources to give back to our community in a time of critical need. The best way we can do that is by helping to deliver protective equipment to healthcare workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The masks are being repaired by replacing the elastic so the masks will stay in place. Williams said that design passed muster with an inspection team of epidemiologists, physicians and infection prevention specialists, and Mottel says the company will devote its “locking-stitch” machines to the task for two shifts a day.

Since other hospitals also have stockpiles of unused masks in disrepair, the project may ultimately be scaled up to refurbish tens of thousands of masks for hospitals across the state.

Matney calls the companies “heroes,” but Mottel says many South Carolina companies are looking for ways they can be part of the solution. The S.C. Manufacturing Alliance has called on its members to donate or produce any PPE that can be used by healthcare professionals such as respirators, eye protection, face masks, hand sanitizers or medical gowns.

“Honestly, we’re humbled and excited that we can help at a time of crisis,” Mottel said. “We’d love for this to be a call to action. There are more manufacturers out there with capabilities that may be able to help.”