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Michigan business answering call to help hospitals battle COVID-19 pandemic

Detroit — Beaumont Health’s Melanie Fisher has been in the health care supply chain business for 25 years, and she’s never seen anything like the outpouring of help coming from businesses to help battle the COVID-19 epidemic.

Melanie Fisher, senior vice president for Beaumont, with a donated box of N95 face masks in the lobby of the corporate headquarters.

On a recent Sunday, the hospital group’s senior vice president for corporate supply chain fielded a call from the chairman at Petoskey Plastics Inc. in northwest lower Michigan. The maker of plastic automotive, construction and medical coverings assured Fisher that it would do whatever it took to deliver hospital gowns to the Southfield-based system — even ship them overnight.

“They did exactly that,” Fisher recalled. “We don’t have two weeks to go through a process. We need people to act immediately, and that’s what these types of folks have been able to do is really rally the troops and immediately retool a line, put something into production, develop a sample we can try and then put it into motion.”

Amid the most pervasive global pandemic in more than a century, hospital systems are establishing connections with suppliers new to the medical-supply business. These companies — from General Motors. Co., Ford Motor Co. and DTE Energy Foundation to Duro-Last Inc. and Petoskey Plastics — are forging relationships with hospitals through random personal connections or government intervention to acquire or produce such goods as masks, face shields and gowns for medical professionals caring for patients battling COVID-19. 

The urgent need to deliver devices for patient care and gear to protect front-line doctors and nurses is producing a constantly evolving patchwork effort joining unconventional partners from disparate industries. More often than not, people involved say, connections often occur in spur-of-the-moment phone calls seeking or offering help. 

Beaumont tried to prepare for COVID-19. In January, the state's largest health care system moved to preserve the personal protective equipment it had to battle the looming threat of COVID-19, the disease caused by coronavirus. And it ordered more. 

"Little did we know," Fisher said, "that this steep incline would rapidly hit us." 

As of Thursday, Michigan had 21,504 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 1,076 deaths. The southeast part of the state has been hit particularly hard. Detroit on Thursday reported a total of 6,083 cases and 272 deaths. Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, excluding Detroit, collectively had 11,062 cases and 640 deaths.

At one point, Beaumont was caring for 70% of the three-county area's coronavirus patients. Before the pandemic, Beaumont would consume between 40,000-50,000 N95 masks in a year, and today the hospital system is using at least 5,000 every day — an annualized rate of more than 1.8 million. To meet the need, Fisher said, Beaumont has developed relationships with 200 new suppliers in a "myriad of ways."

Donated medical supplies stored in the lobby at Beaumont's corporate headquarters.

'Part of the solution'

When Beaumont learned that Petoskey, a plastic film, bag and resin manufacturer, was providing surgical isolation gowns to McLaren Health Care system, it reached out. The company immediately donated 1,400 gowns and has since been making weekly shipments. 

"We are all affected by this crisis, so when our local hospital called asking for help, we wanted to be part of the solution for our community," Petoskey Plastics President Jason Keiswetter said in a statement to The Detroit News. "This partnership not only benefits our medical providers, it also helps to fuel our local economy by keeping our associates working."

Weeks ago, corporate leadership at Dan Gilbert's Rock Family of Companies instructed staff to connect with the city's major hospital systems to find out what they needed, said Aaron Walker, Rock Ventures' chief communications officer.

The Quicken Loans Community Fund, the philanthropic arm of Quicken Loans, bought a mask production line-machine that is expected to produce more than 500,000 masks per week. That machine should be up and running within the next 35 days. The Industrial Sewing and Innovation Center will manage production in a facility provided by Carhartt. 

DTE's Ken Crandall helps unload over 100,000 KN95 masks from the DTE Foundation to Henry Ford Health System, to be distributed to hospitals across southeast Michigan, in Detroit, Michigan on April 8, 2020.

By "(leaning) on various relationships ... in the procurement world," Walker said, Rock sourced 100,000 N95 masks to send to hospitals and health care providers in Metro Detroit.

Xenith, a football helmet and equipment company under the Rock corporate umbrella, leaned on its international suppliers to source face shields, normally used for football helmets, that will be assembled in Detroit and sent to local hospitals.

The group of companies has one of its directors of health care strategy, Dr. Pranav Kothari, working full-time on assisting local health care providers. The doctor is in touch with local hospital systems "multiple times a day" and, along with other staff members who are on task forces dedicated to assisting with the local coronavirus response, is working 16-18-hour shifts daily.

"The situation itself is incredibly unusual," Walker said, "but the notion of serving and being true community members is at the heart of what we do."

Tony Cervone, GM senior vice-president of global communications,  picks up two boxes filled with 2,800 Level 1 face masks made at the GM Transmission Plant in Warren on Tuesday, April 8, 2020.

'The need is so dire'

About three weeks ago, employees at Duro-Last Inc., a Saginaw manufacturer of flexible PVC roofing systems, used part of their weekend to start developing designs for gowns and masks.

Tom Saeli, CEO of Duro-Last, sits on Beaumont’s board. He called up the hospital and the two teams worked together to develop the products to the hospital's desired specifications. Within seven days, Duro-Last shipped product to Beaumont, and it now is working 24 hours a day to produce the gowns and masks the hospital system needs.

“We are getting calls from all over the country looking for gowns and masks,” said Saeli, who's reached out to other manufacturers, including competitors, shared the designs and asked for help. “We just don’t have enough capability to produce it.

“The need is so dire that we are just one little company doing our thing here in Michigan, so that’s why I have encouraged my competitors to also get involved in their own markets. It’s a national effort. We’ve got plants around the country now looking at producing masks in their particular markets.”

Ford Motor Co. has delivered large donations of face shields to Beaumont through a partnership with the hospital company's group purchasing organization, Health Trust Inc.  "As it relates to someone like Ford," Fisher said, "we’ve got a campus in Dearborn so we have a tight relationship with some of the key executives." 

Within days of learning about the personal protective equipment shortage, Ford scaled up to mass-produce face shields at its Troy Design and Manufacturing facility in Plymouth. To date, Ford has produced and shipped about 2 million face shields, primarily to hospitals and other health care providers. The automaker also has been accepting requests for shields for other front-line workers.

"We're prioritizing the hospitals and medical facilities based on supply chain data that we have access to through a couple of partners that specialize in medical supply distribution, one of which is Health Trust," said Elizabeth Kraft, commercial vehicle communications manager for Ford.

The Dearborn automaker has been coordinating with hospital systems, as well as with local and state officials to ensure vitally needed masks, gowns and face shields — called PPE for personal protection equipment — get where they need to go.

Ford has also committed to making ventilators and respirators in separate ventures with GE Healthcare and 3M Co., respectively. Those efforts are still in development and distribution decisions have yet to be determined, Kraft said. Ford is slated to start ventilator production April 20. The company is relying on its partners 3M and GE Healthcare to coordinate distribution and shipment.

As part of the Trump administration's goal to produce 100,000 ventilators in 100 days, Ford plans to build and then provide to GE 50,000 copies of Florida-based Airon Corp.'s ventilator at its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti. The 100-day goal is expected to be reached by July 4, The News reported.

GM has connected with hospitals like Beaumont through the state's Michigan Community Service Commission to deliver face masks produced in a temporarily reopened Warren Transmission Plant. Each day, GM reports to the state how many masks are ready to ship and to what hospital. The Detroit automaker planned to ship 20,000 masks this week, but that number has doubled to more than 44,000.

This week, GM employees volunteered to deliver masks to area hospitals including Beaumont. The automaker-turned-mask maker says it has received "an overwhelming number of requests" that have come from both employees with first-responder relatives who do not have masks and companies in need offering to purchase 5,000 masks to fill their stock.

Because of the rising demand, GM this weekend is installing equipment to open two more production lines — one to produce more face and a second line to produce the N95 masks used by medical staffs and emergency medical technicians.

"There's just such a demand," said Rob Portugaise, executive director of global manufacturing engineering at GM. "There's just such a need for this that it made sense for us to try to improve and get more out of the line than we have, duplicate the line and get into also a bit different style mask."

As early as next week, GM will begin producing ventilators at its Kokomo Operations in Indiana in partnership with Washington-based ventilator manufacturer Ventec Life Systems. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has a $489.4 million contract with GM to supply 30,000 ventilators to the Strategic National Stockpile by the end of August, with 6,132 to be delivered by June 1.

Henry Ford Health System's Cory Jones helps unload over 100,000 KN95 masks from the DTE Foundation to Henry Ford Health System, to be distributed to hospitals across southeast Michigan, in Detroit on April 8, 2020.

About two weeks ago, DTE Energy Foundation placed an order for millions of KN95 respiratory masks to help front-line workers. On Wednesday, the Foundation made its first large donation of 100,000 masks to hospitals in southeast Michigan, including Henry Ford Health System. In addition to hospitals, the foundation is delivering masks to area first responders.

It delivered the masks through its networks of past relationships as well as building new ones. How? By just picking up the phone and asking if there was a need, said Tony Tomczak, vice president of corporate services and DTE Energy's chief procurement officer. 

"We already had some relationships built with CPOs of various industries — including the hospitals — that's helped to foster this," he added. "Then when we started to see something was a need we said: 'Let's not only take care of what we need, but let's think about what others may need.'"