U.S. Companies Pivot to Meet Demand for PPE During COVID-19 Crisis
The pandemic led several companies to begin producing PPE in order to fill a large void in availability.
- By Liz Briggs
- Nov 20, 2020
What began as an outbreak of serious illness caused by a novel coronavirus in December 2019 in Wuhan, China, quickly spread around the world and was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) on March 11, 2020.
In the United States, the first laboratory-confirmed case was diagnosed in the state of Washington on January 20, 2020. Within two months, hospitals in numerous states were overwhelmed with cases of critically ill COVID-19 patients.
There was a huge surge in demand for PPE like gowns and masks, but supply chains were disrupted and stockpiles were quickly depleted. The situation became dire. Medical isolation gowns and masks were in such short supply that healthcare professionals were re-using these single-use items for days or even weeks at a time, putting themselves at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Rising to the Challenge
Driven by a common desire to do whatever it would take to supply the necessary PPE to protect frontline workers exposed to this deadly virus, many companies—including materials suppliers, convertors and garment manufacturers—quickly acted to find solutions.
Some of the companies had no prior experience supplying PPE but saw the critical need and rose to meet the challenge. They pivoted from their usual business, adapted their expertise, collaborated with materials suppliers and convertors they had never worked with before, innovated designs and processes and began supplying medical isolation gowns and masks in record time.
From Fashion Apparel to PPE
Located in New York City’s historic Fashion District, Ferrara Manufacturing has been producing Olympic uniforms for Team USA, runway garments and formal suiting for several major luxury brands since 1987. In March 2020, however, Ferrara Manufacturing shifted its garment production from high-end fashion to medical isolation gowns for frontline workers.
Combining century-old tailoring techniques to provide proper range of motion and movement, Ferrara has reimagined styles of PPE with wearer comfort at the forefront. They are on track to deliver nearly 3 million medical isolation gowns, masks, booties and surgical caps to hospitals across the United States by the end of this year.
“We have sons and daughters [working] on the front line, so we all feel a sense of duty and passion to help the people within our community,” said Joseph Ferrara, founder of Ferrara Manufacturing.
50 Days to Become One of Largest U.S. Manufacturers of Medical Isolation Gowns
In its nearly 200-year history, Merrow has manufactured a variety of products, starting with gunpowder in the 1830s and then knit cotton goods and sewing machines. This Massachusetts-based, eighth-generation, family-run company holds the distinction of introducing the industry’s first industrial overlock sewing machine in 1868. It also holds the distinction of becoming one of the largest manufacturers of medical isolation gowns in the United States just 50 days after starting up PPE production earlier this year.
At the start of 2020, Merrow was focused on manufacturing its more than 40 styles of hand-built, industrial sewing machines, as well as “soft goods” ranging from baby apparel and lingerie to military uniforms, bullet-resistant vests and flame-resistant (FR) workwear, to name a few. But their focus quickly changed in response to the dire need for PPE when the COVID-19 crisis began. Merrow was inspired to pivot their expertise and produce millions of medical isolation gowns as quickly as possible.
Within 50 days—with support from its new partners—Merrow had shipped medical isolation gowns to more than 100 hospitals, assisted living facilities, emergency medical services (EMS) organizations, dental offices, healthcare centers, addiction treatment facilities and state emergency hospitals.
Merrow also established itself at the forefront of a long-term supply chain solution for U.S. PPE manufacturing and innovation, scheduling weekly deliveries ranging from 50 to 250,000 gowns with states and hospital systems across the country well into 2022.
“Merrow, a brand whose heritage lies deeply and proudly in its domestic manufacturing capabilities, was able to mount a scalable plan for PPE on the heels of numerous public and private partnerships that have been created over the past decade,” said Charlie Merrow, CEO of Merrow Manufacturing & Merrow Sewing Machine Co. “Merrow is proud to have created a blueprint that produces an uninterrupted supply of essential medical supplies, while also generating jobs, community investment, and strong public and private partnerships.”
Supporting Hometown Heroes
Known for its broad offering of athletic apparel and footwear designed to enhance the performance of athletes around the globe, Under Armour, which is based in Baltimore, Maryland, never could have imagined it would be adapting its talents to design and supply PPE to help local area healthcare workers in their fight against COVID-19.
It all began when the University of Maryland Medical System (UMMS) contacted Under Armour to ask for help in meeting a critical shortage of face masks. The list of healthcare facilities requesting help quickly grew and the requests were soon expanded to include medical isolation gowns.
“Beginning in March, requests from Baltimore area hospitals came pouring in. We quickly recommissioned Lighthouse, our well-equipped Design Center in Baltimore, to design a one-piece, no-sew origami mask and then supply it by the millions,” said Randy Harward, SVP of Material and Manufacturing Innovation at Under Armour. “As our factory partners came back online, and with DuPont’s help with material supply, we pivoted to producing millions of isolation gowns for the Washington, D.C. and Maryland region.”
Developing the medical isolation gowns was a collaborative process that involved working with other companies, competitors and FEMA to crowdsource the concepts and designs. Under Armour then shared its final gown designs openly to enable quick production.
This summer, just three months after receiving that first request for help meeting a mask shortage, Under Armour had delivered 4,640,050 of its origami masks and the first of many weekly orders of 400,000 medical isolation gowns. In total, Under Armour will deliver 3.8 million medical isolation gowns this year to help hospitals in the region meet their current supply needs and build up their stockpiles for future use.