Goodbye mattresses, hello masks: Ga. manufacturers help in virus response

As the coronavirus pandemic tightened its grip on the state last week, Heritage Sleep Concepts was forced to make a tough call: Laying off a quarter of its employees due to a decrease in business.

“Things had slowed down so much,” co-owner Frankie Beck said. “And then I received a phone call from Floyd Medical Center, asking me if we could make masks for them.”

The family-owned mattress company in Rome — an area of the state hit especially hard by the novel virus — became one of many manufacturers across Georgia that has been converted into a medical supplies company in a matter of days, churning out protective equipment badly needed at medical centers.

Heritage, which was able to rehire its 15 furloughed workers, plans to use a mattress embroidering machine to outline the shape of the face masks. Luvu Brands, a lifestyle materials company in metro Atlanta, has taught dozens of sewing machine operators how to stitch masks. And the manufacturer YKK, which typically makes zippers and buttons at its Macon facility, is turning more attention to making fastening products for medical masks and hospital gowns.

Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Beck

Credit: Courtesy of Frankie Beck

“Everything has changed overnight. We’re at war,” said Louis Friedman, the CEO of Luvu. “We have spun into work mode.”

Though it is hard to get a firm estimate for the number of manufacturers that have shifted to make medical equipment, the impact will be felt at hospitals across Georgia, said Jason Moss, the founder and CEO of the Georgia Manufacturing Alliance. He worries, however, that supplies to make some products could run out as imports lag due to of the coronavirus.

Meanwhile, demand for the newfound stream of products is pouring in from hospitals both locally and internationally, companies said.

“It’s really neat to see how all the pieces are coming together,” Moss said. “It doesn’t do any good to have idle hands sitting at the house.”

The trend is playing out on a broader scale across the country. President Donald Trump on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act, compelling General Motors to manufacture thousands of ventilators.

In Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp’s office has created an online form asking companies to submit information on what they could produce, listing nearly 20 items that are in high demand, from sanitizing wipes to face shields.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia

Some large Georgia manufacturers have temporarily shut down altogether in the last week, including Kia Motors’s vehicle assembly factory in West Point and Yamaha Motor Corporation’s plant in Newnan.

Christian Viviers, the CEO of Gant Medical, closed his Alpharetta facility for a week to sanitize it. Gant typically makes disposable bibs used by dentists, but modified the design, allowing doctors and nurses to put the bib over their mask to protect their neck and ears.

Though it only employs only about a dozen workers, Gant can now make 400,000 of the elongated masks every day.

“The idea was to get people aware of our capability, what we can do to help,” Viviers said, adding that he has fielded calls from people in New York, Canada and Spain who are interested in the product.

From its facility in the Doraville area, Luvu typically produces a range of lifestyle items including outdoor furniture and intimacy products. It is now in the process of hiring more sewing machine operators as it switches to predominantly making medical masks.

“The orders are coming in, as you might imagine, pretty actively,” Friedman said.

With up to 70 sewing machines dedicated to making masks, the company hopes to make 100,000 every week. They are slightly less protective than the N-95 masks, which filter out bacteria and viruses for medical workers and are in very short supply. Luvu is in the process of getting the right materials for the N-95 masks.

“We’ll meet whatever production requirements we can meet, even if we have to operate 24/7,” he said.

With demand continuing to rise for medical products, Moss worries supply chains for manufacturers may begin to dry up, especially those that rely on Chinese companies.

“We’re getting pretty close to that for a lot of companies,” he said. “Within the next couple weeks to a month, we’ll begin to see it a lot more clearly.”

That presents more opportunities for local suppliers, Moss said, adding that Georgia’s nearly 10,000 manufacturing companies account for about 10% of the state’s economy. Both Friedman and Viviers said they are confident they will be able to keep up their production, since they use domestic companies for their materials.

With factory workers still having to report to work, companies are also taking extra precautions to keep them from contracting the virus.

Friedman said Luvu takes the temperature of every employee coming into work each day, while Gant has spread out workers’ stations so they are a safe distance from one another.

In Rome, Beck feels a personal responsibility to help his community. Rome and Floyd County recently issued a shelter-in-place order as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Floyd hit 20 on Friday.

“When you see your friends that have it, it hits home. It’s right here in our backyard,” Beck said. “That means the world, being able to help your hometown.”