Health and Science

Personal protective equipment is in high demand as coronavirus spreads

Key Points
  • The World Health Organization is warning of a potential shortage of personal protective equipment as coronavirus spreads.
  • Manufacturers such as Medicom are ramping up production globally in response.
Personal protective equipment is in high demand

As the number of coronavirus cases around the world continues to climb, the World Health Organization is warning of a potential shortage of personal protective equipment, or PPE. In response, manufacturers such as Medicom are ramping up production globally.

At Medicom's United Medical Enterprises production facility in Augusta, Georgia, 70 workers are now on shifts from 6 a.m. through midnight, making face masks and other single-use items for medical professionals including sterilization kits and bibs. When the coronavirus first hit, the company decided to increase capacity as demand began to rise, having produced essential PPE in past infectious disease outbreaks including SARS and Ebola.

Medicom manufacturing facility in Augusta, Georgia. Medicom is ramping up its production of earloop masks used by medical professionals at its locations worldwide.
Christian Smith | CNBC

"When we saw in December and early January that something was happening in China, we started to look more closely," said Medicom COO Guillaume Laverdure, group president of the company's North American operations.

"The action we typically take is to ramp up production right away by adding hours to the shifts, then by adding shifts, investing into equipment, securing retail supply, as well as hiring and recruiting and training in advance the people that will run the machines," Laverdure said.

The Montreal-based company has six facilities in China, France and Taiwan in addition to Augusta, with some 1,100 employees manufacturing gloves, gowns, N-95 respirators and face masks for the medical community.

As of right now, its U.S.-manufactured products are heading across North America, and much of the company's supply is sourced from the same region. But some parts are imported from China, and with demand so high, prices are increasing.

The virus' impact on China has also impacted domestic supply of PPE more broadly, Laverdure said, as exports are now forbidden from Taiwan, China and France, where masks and supplies are being requisitioned by the government for local use. 

Medicom manufacturing facility in Augusta, Georgia.
Christian Smith | CNBC

"The supply from China, which was servicing probably 80% or 90% of the U.S. market, disappeared. So the demand in the U.S. may have increased, but the fact that the supply was restricted created a huge amplification on the U.S. production capacity. So we're looking at an order of magnitude between five and 10 times their relative demand," Laverdure says. "It's difficult to quantify … so we are limiting to what we can supply."

The company says it will move to 24-hour production in the near future in Georgia, adding 30 employees in the next few months — a tall order in a tight labor market, as employment is at record highs in the state. 

"It's very challenging to find workers, and the ramp up is very steep. A training period needs to happen — these are technical products, so you need to be properly trained," he said.

Medicom manufacturing facility in Augusta, Georgia.
Christian Smith | CNBC

And as the WHO is warning of a potential mask shortage, Laverdure said it's important the public is aware of what masks should be used in what situation, adding it is working with the WHO to spread awareness about mask usage. The group says demand for face masks has increased sixfold since the virus began.

"We're working with the WHO to help facilitate fluidity in the supply chain, because increasing capacity is one of the aspects of coping with the demand," he said.

"But there are other aspects, one of them being making sure that we communicate the use of the right mask at the right moment by the right person for the right reason to avoid wasting mask consumption for useless utilization. Two is make sure that we can improve the supply by avoiding stockpiling. There is stockpiling because of fear, panic, sometimes speculation, so, how can we fight this, and definitely capacity increase is another type of answer."