For one Dallas CEO, it was a local nursing home’s dire plea for help that crystallized what he had to do.
The health care facility’s staff of 100 has to care for about 275 residents with just 10 protective masks left.
“That type of stuff just rips our heart apart,” said Matt O’Brien, a software chief executive. “It’s just inconceivable that that’s the situation that we’re in.”
O’Brien had his software development company shift gears earlier this week and start churning out 3D-printed respirators for local health care facilities and first responders to help cover the shortage. His first customer: the nursing home, which he hopes will receive a shipment of masks on Monday or Tuesday.
His company, Unique Software Development, is one of several North Texas businesses that retooled production lines during the COVID-19 outbreak to manufacture much-needed supplies like masks and sanitizers for front-line public health workers.
They include the Leather Sofa Company, which has put its seamstresses back to work on protective masks in its Lewisville factory that had fallen silent after officials announced shelter-in-place orders. Addison-based Mary Kay has also joined the cause, dedicating its manufacturing centers to produce hand sanitizer.
North Texas, like much of the U.S., is dealing with a critical shortage of medical supplies like ventilators, as well as personal protective equipment such as face masks, gloves, goggles and gowns. And the full impact of the outbreak has yet to be felt here.
A national survey by the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology found that almost half of U.S. health care facilities either have run out of face shields or are almost out. Nearly one-third of those surveyed reported the same situation with face masks. And more than one in four facilities have similar needs regarding hand sanitizer.
Mary Kay said it will donate its first batch of hand sanitizers to Baylor Scott & White, the state’s largest nonprofit healthcare system, with 52 hospitals, 7,500 physicians and a staff of more than 47,000.
Gov. Greg Abbott announced this week a plan to buy essential safety supplies from companies hurt by the pandemic with more than $83 million of purchase orders at the ready. The state’s Supply Chain Strike Force plans to distribute the supplies to medical professionals, hospitals and first responders across Texas.
Although O’Brien’s company specializes in software development, it also uses 3D printers to make prototypes for clients. Dallas’ stay-at-home order did not hurt his company because his employees are used to working remotely, he said. Most of them, about 130, already do so from various countries worldwide.
“We came up with this idea on Tuesday night,” he said.
O’Brien’s engineers worked all night and found an open source design for a 3D respirator that resembles a N95 surgical mask. After making some modifications, the team was ready to start printing.
O’Brien said he now has about 25 printers “running day and night” out of his location at Central Expressway and Knox Henderson, and he hopes to produce as many as 200 of the reusable masks per day.
“Given some of the tools that we have, we figured that we might be able to make a decent amount of impact,” he said on Thursday. “This was simply an idea 24 hours ago.”
O’Brien said he will distribute the respirators in Dallas first to make sure the local community has enough, and then will ship them to hot spots in need across the nation. The masks use small, replaceable filters. He bought about 10,000 filters that are coming in next week, with more on order.
About six of his employees are working on the project full time, and O’Brien is looking to partner with other local businesses to increase the output. Others are welcome to download the design from his company’s website and print the masks, he said.
“We are now getting inundated with requests,” he said.
O’Brien said he bought more printers on Thursday and will add others.
“We’ve got so many printers running, they’re starting to trip our breakers,” he said.
That prompted talks with his landlord to rent more space to house the additional machines.
O’Brien said he felt that he needed to do something to help, given that his company was largely spared from the hardships the coronavirus is wreaking on businesses in the U.S. and worldwide.
“That was what got us to stand up and give back,” he said. “It’s probably one of the most amazing feelings I’ve ever had. … Hopefully, we can inspire others to do the same.”
O’Brien said those who need masks can request them at www.Uniquesoftwaredev.com.
When orders for furniture dried up, Mitch Lurie got an idea that would keep some of his employees working and also help the local public health effort.
His head designer found a pattern online and digitized and tested it. Lurie said his 12 seamstresses are now producing protective masks for health care workers and first responders. They sit at machines that are spaced far enough away to offer protection.
Elastic has been in short supply, but Lurie said his Leather Sofa Co. factory produced 1,200 masks on Tuesday.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with people wanting masks,” he said. “It’s crazy how many people need them.”
And it’s not just doctors and nurses. Frontier Communications asked him for 10,000 masks, he said.
Lurie said production will continue for as long as it can. Since word has gotten out, people are walking into this factory showroom in Lewisville looking for masks, he said.
“There’s no way to fulfill every request,” he said.
The factory normally has 40 workers but is down to just the mask-sewing operation. Lurie said he and his wife put aside money for a crisis like this one, and he hopes to be able to continue helping out until the federal government can disburse economic stimulus checks and loans to businesses like his.
Monday, he said, was the toughest single day since the company opened in 2004, Lurie said. That was when the city of Dallas, where most of his employees live, issued the stay-at-home order. Lurie said it’s a scary time. His company is not earning any money. And with five locations, he still has rents and overhead to pay, he said.
Lurie said he still needs elastic and other material like cotton fabric. His factory can produce about 1,200 masks per day if going at “full tilt.” On Thursday, he ran out of material the day before and was phoning vendors for more.
“We’ll be good through Monday, hopefully,” he said.
CORRECTION, 6:45 p.m., March 27, 2020: In a previous version of this story, Matt O’Brien, CEO of Unique Software Development, was mistakenly identified in a photo caption as Rick Cantu, and as a vice president.
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