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From health care to education to food supply chains, the novel coronavirus pandemic has drastically disrupted Montanans' sense of "normal." Yet in seeking solutions for the short term, business owners, educators, health care professionals and criminal justice workers have developed fixes that may long outlive the virus's first few waves. In the "COVID Solutions" series, reporters investigate avenues of lasting recovery spurred by the pandemic.

Montana Manufacturers’ New Products, Markets Could Have Lasting Impact Post-Pandemic

Workers at Simms, a fly fishing gear manufacturing company, make heavy duty medical gowns in Four Corners, Montana in June, 2020.
Kylie Mohr
Workers at Simms, a fly fishing gear manufacturing company, make heavy duty medical gowns in Four Corners, Montana in June, 2020.

 

This story is part of a series that looks at potentially lasting ways Montana adapted during the pandemic. It’s funded in part by the Solutions Journalism Network. 

Businesses across the state found themselves making new products in response to pandemic shortages. Montana companies pivoted from manufacturing items like fishing waders and craft spirits to gowns and disinfectant and kept people employed in the process. 

Inside an old sawmill building from the 1800s, people are racing to staple as many elastic bands to pieces of plastic and foam as they can. Usually, Coaster Cycles employees in Bonner are welding metal to make pedal operated vehicles known as pedicabs.

But they switched gears. It happened after CEO Ben Morris saw an open source face shield design on LinkedIn mid March.

"It’s a super simple design, and not technical at all to build. I've had my kids put them together at the house," Morris says.

His company’s products transport Starbucks coffee, move raw materials in Tesla factories and shuttle beer around NFL stadiums. But after jumping through cleaning protocols and insurance hurdles, now the company is also supplying the New York City Department of Health with 150,000 face shields.

It’s working to help replenish the federal stockpile. It all started with a call to Washington state’s Providence Hospital Group, which committed to half a million face shields to protect staff from COVID-19. That’s since turned into supporting all 51 Providence hospitals in 8 states and a whole lot more. 

"We've sent product to dental offices, nursing homes, hospice groups, veterinary and gyms, hair salons, nail salons, hotels, resorts and everything else in between," Morris says.

As pedicab construction ground to a halt and nonessential factory operations shuttered, Morris had to let go the majority of his staff, not for long, though.

"We ended up offering jobs back to everyone who we had laid off."

Morris even rallied other nearby businesses to help fulfill orders. Warehouse space is getting tight.

"These new opportunities and these new contracts came up, and we were like, 'Alright, well, maybe we continue to do this ongoing and a small little subset of our business,'" Morris says.

Locals are proving they can handle the work. Morris thinks that could make lasting dents in relying so much on an international supply chain. To that end, the state’s manufacturing outreach and assistance center based at Montana State University is working to connect health providers with close to 50 manufacturers in the state making what they might need, from 15 craft distilleries using leftover beer for hand sanitizer to a pump company making hospital beds.

Other companies you might not expect are part of that pivot. Simms is a brand synonymous with fly fishing. But Bozeman Health asked the company if it could also make heavy duty medical gowns. 

"And that's, you know, that's what America is supposed to be about, and that's what Montana is supposed to be about. Right? Someone asked for help, you step up," Fred Dennis, the senior director of merchandising and materials at Simms, says.

A team of designers, product developers and sewers who might’ve otherwise been without a job worked quickly to create patterns and prototypes. Shortages made it hard for other companies to get the right kind of fabrics. But Simms had plenty of rugged fabrics that work for waders and rain jackets.

It took less than two weeks from the initial call for Simms to sew gowns. Products like a shirt or boots usually take 18 months from concept to creation.

"I won't use the word miracle, but holy cow, it was tough," Dennis says.

Within months, the fishing company has shipped more than 6,000 gowns to more than 25 states. Now they’re researching what it would take to get FDA approved to make gowns after emergency orders are lifted.

Hospitals needed other materials, too, and with global supplies hard to come by, they started looking in state.

Machines hum away inside Missoula’s Rocky Mountain Biologicals to make the liquid that surrounds coronavirus swabs and gets them safely from a patient to a lab. The viral transport medium, or VTM as it’s called, is necessary to preserve the sample’s ribonucleic acid for analysis.

Typically, the company’s serums and sterile solutions go into cholesterol test kits. Others are part of human cancer therapies and veterinary vaccines. They’d never made this before. But in mid March, Community Medical Center in Missoula approached them with concerns of low supply. 

"We just jumped on it and ordered the few reagents that we still needed to produce the VTM and pushed everything through our quality system as fast as we could and started manufacturing within about a week," COO Jeremy Amberson says.

The all hands on deck approach worked. Local facilities didn’t run out as testing ramped up.

"Within about a week and a half, we were shipping all over Montana, to hospitals, to the state lab, into a lot of smaller clinics and smaller towns throughout Montana, and I would say within two weeks we were shipping throughout the Northwest and quickly began shipping all across the U.S. after that," Amberson says.

Rocky Mountain Biologicals is planning to keep creating the transport medium in addition to its other products for the foreseeable future.

"From our standpoint, there's no reason for us to not keep offering this product," Amberson says.

Whether new products become a mainstay or a blip on the radar, companies said jumping into new markets helped them feel productive and useful during a crisis.