A Georgia factory is adding shifts and moving to a seven-day workweek to ramp up production of medical masks as the coronavirus outbreak restricts supply out of China.
But Montreal-based Medicom Group’s United Medical Enterprises factory in Augusta, Ga., is not sending products across the Pacific.
Instead, the factory’s 80-plus employees are helping offset the effects of an export ban China instituted amid its fight with the new coronavirus, which causes a pneumonia-like illness now called Covid-19. The ban has led to global supply shortages that must be filled from other locales.
Established in 1998, Medicom’s Augusta facility is now meeting increased demand from the U.S. and Canada, while factories in France and Taiwan are able to send excess capacity to China.
“Right now we are not taking orders for China out of Augusta. We are protecting existing customers, existing markets, first,” Guillaume Laverdure, Medicom Group’s chief operating officer and president for North America, told Global Atlanta in a phone interview from Montreal.
Medicom was founded on the premise of responding to public health concerns, getting started in the late 1980s to relieve a shortage of gloves needed to protect health workers from a newly discovered disease: HIV. Over time it built a globally distributed production base that has proven integral to dealing with outbreaks like H1N1 or “swine” flu, SARS, Ebola and others.
“We’re used to these sudden peaks in demand, and we know how to react, typically by adding capacity, making sure we serve our existing customers first and managing the long supply chain of raw materials,” Mr. Laverdure said.
A big difference this time is that China produced about half the world’s medical masks — and the export ban stopped that outward flow immediately, Mr. Laverdure said. That exposed a heavy reliance on the country that has become known as the world’s factory.
“The creates a really abnormal influx of demand in the other jurisdictions,” he said.
To give a sense of scale, Medicom’s mask orders have jumped to 500 million since the virus began spreading out of the Hubei provincial capital of Wuhan in January. Medicom’s largest ex-China factory in Angers, France, can make 170 million masks in per year, and its global capacity, including China, peaks at 5 million per day.
For now, all of Medicom’s Chinese production is being requisitioned to meet local needs. Only 804 of the 73,332 cases of Covid-19 were diagnosed outside mainland China as of Feb. 18, according to the World Health Organization. Just over 2,000 people have died from the virus, only six of them outside China.
According to the South China Morning Post, some local governments in China are requiring citizens to wear masks when entering public places, and health departments are rationing the N95 masks that offer the best filtration capabilities and most tightly fit the faces of health care workers. The newspaper cited Chinese media reports estimating that 50-60 million masks are needed per day.
Medicom makes both medical “earloop” masks used in dental offices and operating theaters as well as the N95 masks. Demand is rising for both, Mr. Laverdure said. Medicom also makes a disinfectant spray that can kill the virus one minute after application. The virus is thought to be spread through droplets from coughs or sneezes or lingering on surfaces.
Facing a tight job market, Mr. Laverdure said Medicom is appealing to Georgia employees’ sense of purpose as it brings in new people and asks longtime team members to spend more time on the production line.
“Our tagline is ‘pride in protection.’ Whether you work in the factory or the warehouse, you know you’re shipping products that protect people, protect lives,” he said. “It’s not the ultimate answer, but it helps recruiting quality people.”