Utah companies change plans, and make new products, to join the COVID-19 battle

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Instead of sewing tents, Springbar Canvas employee Pamela Russell sews medical gowns for the state of Utah, at her home in Kearns. Tuesday May 5, 2020

Last week, for the first time in more than a month, all the workers at the tent manufacturer Springbar were back in their Millcreek factory, where they usually make the canvas tents that have been the company’s stock and trade since World War II.

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing businesses to shut down or alter their workplaces, about half the employees at Springbar, formerly Kirkham’s Outdoor Products, had been sewing from home.

The workers aren’t just making tents, though. For the past three weeks, they also have been sewing personal protective equipment for health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

“At home, I started working on it,” said Pamela Russell, a seamstress at Springbar for the past 10 years. “I told my husband, ‘That is a pretty cool feeling, knowing what you’re doing is to help people in this crisis time.’”

Springbar is one of several Utah companies that have refitted manufacturing facilities and introduced new product lines to help health care workers dealing with the coronavirus.

“It was a good opportunity for us when the COVID situation started, and we didn’t want to have folks working in the shop,” said Pace Measom, Springbar’s owner.

Russell said she had been sewing parts, such as windows, for Springbar’s tents from her home in Kearns during the COVID-19 shutdown. Toward the end of April, Russell started sewing hospital-grade gowns for health care workers, cranking out 25 to 30 a day.

Measom hit on the idea when his brother, a doctor performing his residency at Dartmouth, talked to him about shortages in medical protective equipment as the COVID-19 pandemic began. “Early on, he said, ‘You guys should figure out how to make masks or something,’” Measom said.

The company looked into the idea and within weeks was contacted by the Utah Department of Health about making gowns. “We made a sample in a couple hours, and had a purchase order a couple hours after that,” Measom said. “So we’re making gowns.”

Measom said his company received a contract with the state of Utah, worth around $80,000, to produce 3,500 of the coverall-like gowns.

Springbar’s workers were back in their Millcreek factory last week, Measom said. Work stations are usually spaced far apart, because of the size of the tents the workers make, he said, so social distancing hasn’t meant a lot of reconfiguring the factory floor.

The health care workers wearing Springbar’s gowns might also be wearing masks from Wildhorn Outfitters, a Draper outdoor supply manufacturer. The company has developed a way to adapt its full-face snorkeling masks to accommodate an N95 filter, capable of blocking out most viruses the wearer might otherwise breathe in.

Mark Thomas, Wildhorn’s CEO, said he was watching what was happening in Europe, where the spread of the virus was a couple of weeks ahead of the first outbreaks in the United States. “There were some very enterprising health care workers over there who started to try it out, with success, in a couple of different adaptations,” Thomas said.

(Photo courtesy of Wildhorn Outfitters) A snorkeling mask, made by Draper-based Wildhorn Outfitters, has been refitted with an N95 respirator filter for use by health care workers treating COVID-19 patients.

Designers at Wildhorn started working on ways to attach an N95 filter — a standard part of most hospital respirators — to where a snorkel ordinarily goes on the company’s Seaview 180º masks. It took about two weeks, Thomas said, “to go from the initial computer design all the way to a 3D print that we were comfortable with.”

That included testing to make sure the wearer could breathe with the filter in place and that the mask would seal tight on the wearer’s face.

Wildhorn has made the design plans available online, so anyone with a mask can 3D-print an adapter that attaches a filter to it.

Soon after Wildhorn started refitting its snorkeling masks for health care workers, Thomas said, one nonprofit bought 5,000 masks. “There could potentially be a need that is actually greater than what recreational snorkeling represented, at least in the near term,” Thomas said.

Wildhorn’s masks are usually used by people vacationing near an ocean, Thomas said, and the decline in travel tied to the COVID-19 pandemic meant fewer people were buying masks. “We watched our demand disappear almost entirely,” Thomas said.

Selling masks for health care workers, Thomas said, “keeps everybody employed.” Wildhorn has a payroll of 21 employees, most of them in Utah. “There’s a survival mentality,” he said. “How do we grow one month at a time? How do we get through the next six weeks? It’s a battle.”

Measom said Springbar has kept all 19 of its workers on payroll, between the gown contract and federal aid money. Sales of tents are still firm, he said, because “camping might be one of the only activities that folks are going to be doing this summer, as opposed to cruise ships or Disneyland.”

Transitioning to a coronavirus-related product was a big move for HHI Corp., an Ogden-based general contractor that normally builds chemical and biological test centers, aircraft maintenance platforms and mobile facilities for the U.S. military.

In April, HHI started offering two new mobile systems in response to the pandemic: a mobile triage unit, where doctors can assess which patients need treatment soonest; and portable test labs, which can be deployed to hot spots where COVID-19 tests are most needed.

HHI announced plans to make 10 triage units — each one with room for 12 hospital beds, plus nurses’ stations and support equipment. The units are wired for electricity, ventilation with HEPA filters, and potable water and waste connections. The first one, bought by a hospital chain, is slated to be completed near the end of this month and shipped to Boston in six modified container boxes.

Devin Brown, HHI’s communications manager, said his company — which has about 170 employees in Utah and Colorado — got an early taste of what it would be like to deal with COVID-19 back in February, just as the virus was beginning to spread in the United States.

When passengers on a cruise ship docked in Japan came down with COVID-19, Brown said one of their products — a biocontainment chamber the company has nicknamed “the Ebola box” — was placed inside a 747 cargo plane to ferry infected Americans home.

Brown said HHI hasn’t lost any jobs because of COVID-19 — a perk of having the Pentagon as a customer — but has seen interruptions in work. For example, he said, some employees had to drive to California to work on a Department of Defense project, because the company instituted a no-fly policy for its employees.

During the pandemic, Brown said, HHI has seen subcontractors and suppliers taking extra steps to assist on their coronavirus-related construction. “People have basically put off other projects to help us because they see the need,” Brown said.

At Springbar, seamstress Imelda Tumwebaze said there’s a similar spirit of pulling together when they sew hospital gowns.

“It’s uplifting,” Tumwebaze said. “Someone can use a tent for fun. Making a gown that can save a life has really, really been an amazing experience.”