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Minnesota companies ramp up production to combat COVID-19

The moves come in response to shortages nationwide. Health care workers say they do not have enough respiratory masks to protect staff, while hospitals say there’s a critical need for more mechanical ventilators. 

N95 respirator masks
Maplewood-based 3M manufactures a critical piece of medical protective equipment: N95 respirator masks.
REUTERS/Nicholas Pfosi

Global corporations based in Minnesota say they are working in overdrive to produce supplies that could help combat the spread of COVID-19 and help patients.

As the nation’s number of cases of the novel coronavirus grows, locally based companies such as 3M and Medtronic are on the forefront of manufacturing critical equipment for fighting the pandemic, including respiratory masks and mechanical ventilators, and are mobilizing staff on production lines to increase their global output.

The changes are in response to shortages nationwide. Health care workers say they do not have enough respiratory masks to protect staff who are exposed to patients, for example. In Minnesota, a shortage forced nurses to reuse some masks when they shouldn’t or use printer paper as face protection because they have no other options, said Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association, at a news conference last week.

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“Sometimes patients are screened at the ER sometimes they’re not screened until they’re up on the unit and have encountered numerous staff without adequate personal protective equipment,” said Randy Peterson, a nurse on the cardiac unit of M Health Fairview Southdale Hospital. “We’re using (personal protective equipment) at a conservative pace, which is not working on emergency medical units.”

3M doubles output of masks

While scotch tape and Post-it Notes may be 3M’s best known products, the Maplewood-based corporation also manufactures a critical piece of medical protective equipment: N95 respirator masks. By filtering about 95 percent of airborne particles, including pathogens, the masks help medical workers lower the risk of catching COVID-19 themselves or spreading the virus. 

On Sunday, 3M Chairman and CEO Mike Roman said in a statement the company is running at maximum production levels to make N95 masks, and it plans to almost double that rate within the next year. The company has already pledged to up its production of hand sanitizer and other products to help people stay healthy during the pandemic.

Already, 3M has doubled its output since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, producing nearly 100 million masks in factories worldwide per month, including 35 million monthly in the U.S, according to the statement. About 90 percent of the U.S-made masks are going to healthcare workers, with the remaining going to other critical industries such as energy, food and pharmaceutical companies.

“As I write this, more than 500,000 respirators are on the way from our South Dakota plant to two of the more critically impacted areas, New York and Seattle, with arrivals expected starting tomorrow,” Roman wrote. “We are also ready to expedite additional shipments across the country.

Previous regulatory rules, to some extent, are to blame for the hospital shortages. Until recently, 3M’s factories sold the majority of their N95 masks to industrial customers because the health-care sector only did business with manufacturers certified by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), per federal law. Under new legislation signed into law last week, U.S. manufacturers like 3M and Honeywell can sell the masks to hospitals without running the risk of liability lawsuits. 

Roman commended the law change in his statement Sunday, saying it has enabled the company to distribute more masks to health care workers already. Working with U.S. leaders and other governments on similar issues going forward, Roman said the company is preparing to ramp up production even further, aiming to sell almost 2 billion globally within the next year.

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“Like everyone, I see the pleas from our heroic doctors, nurses and first responders for the respirators and other equipment they desperately need,” Roman wrote. “I want people to know we are doing all we can to meet the demands of this extraordinary time and get supplies from our plants to where they’re most needed as quickly as possible.”

But with higher demand for medical supplies, like masks, has come more competition among buyers. State leaders nationwide are urging the federal government to impose stricter regulations on the supply market so health care administrators can afford the equipment they need. In Minnesota, Gov. Tim Walz on Friday signed an executive order that empowers the state attorney general office to crack down on price gouging.

3M spokesperson Jennifer Ehrlich has told the Washington Post that the company “has not changed the prices it charges for 3M respirators as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak, but the company cannot control the prices dealers or retailers charge for 3M respirators.” 

Abbott Laboratories, Medtronic also ramping up production

The Illinois-based Abbott Laboratories a medical device manufacturer with facilities in Plymouth and St. Paul is also changing its day-to-day business to combat COVID-19.

Last week, Abbott announced that the FDA has authorized the company to begin mass-producing and distributing a new molecular test to detect the novel coronavirus, a process designed for Abbott-made machines that are already in hospitals and laboratories throughout the U.S.

“The systems have the ability to run high volumes of up to 470 tests in 24 hours, helping to meet the increasing demand for testing,” a statement from the company says. “Many of these instruments are used in university and community hospitals where patients come for care, resulting in testing that happens closer to the patient rather than sending it to an offsite lab.”

Meanwhile, Medtronic, the medical device maker with global operational headquarters in Fridley, has pledged to double its output of mechanical ventilators: life-saving devices for critically-ill COVID-19 patients who suffer respiratory issues and need help breathing. 

In an interview Saturday, spokesman Ben Petok said the company has already upped production by 40 percent since the beginning of the year, raising its weekly output to several hundred ventilators per week. To make that happen, the company is planning to double its 250-person staff at its Ireland-based manufacturing site, which will include transferring workers from other Medtronic sites, and will change to a 24/7 production cycle.

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“We’re mobilizing,” he said. “There’s an acute understanding of the need worldwide for ventilators right now. We’ve deployed as many as possible to as many points of the world, and we’re prioritizing the high-risk, high-need areas.”

Walz activates National Guard to help ease gear shortage

To help ease the shortage of supplies in Minnesota hospitals, Walz has also ordered patients seeking “nonessential” medical procedures that require personal protective equipment (PPE) which can include gowns, N95 masks, goggles and gloves to reschedule their appointments. 

Additionally, on Saturday night, the governor activated Minnesota’s National Guard to distribute protective gear to health care workers on the front line containing COVID-19. Under that executive order, which will remain in effect throughout the state of emergency for Minnesota, the National Guard is transporting the gear from a storage facility at Camp Ripley near Little Falls, Morrison County, to the Minnesota Department of Health in St. Paul.

“Minnesota’s hospitals, healthcare facilities and first responders report that their supplies of PPE are critically low,” Walz said in the executive order. “Additional PPE deliveries from the Strategic National Stockpile have been delayed,” referring to the federally-run supply of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies to help local governments overcome shortages during public health emergencies.

Meanwhile, local governments and health care groups such as the Minnesota Nurses Association are accepting public donations of new N95 masks to distribute to Twin Cities hospitals, which is the epicenter of the state’s COVID-19 outbreak (Hennepin County alone accounts for 57 of Minnesota’s 169 cases, as of Sunday).