'War without guns': Local manufacturers build key equipment for N.M.

By its very nature, Marpac Inc. had already joined the fight against the novel coronavirus.

The Albuquerque-based medical manufacturer’s main business is producing key components used in ventilators.

But when supplies of personal protective equipment began to run low amid the spread of COVID-19, Marpac jumped into that effort, too.

Jeff Alcalde, the company’s owner and president, recently was paid a visit by Troy Greer, CEO of Lovelace Medical Center. Greer brought samples of gloves, masks and gowns, and wanted to know if Marpac could produce any of those as well.

“I think he said, ‘You might be able to make some of these. But if you can pick one, we would appreciate if you picked the N95 respirator,’ ” Alcalde recalled.

“All of our bandwidth has gone into that.”

New Mexico doesn’t have much of a manufacturing industry. Yet amid a pandemic that threatens lives around the world and throughout the state, several small local companies — such as Marpac and Church Rock-based Rhino Health — have emerged to boost supplies of medical equipment for health care workers on the front lines.

“There are any number of companies and labs and individuals, frankly, that have come forward,” Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said last week, specifically thanking Marpac, Rhino and others. “That makes a difference.”

To boost its efforts, Marpac has expanded its hours of operation and is hiring more staff in order to begin producing respirators in addition to its regular operations, which involves producing tube holders used in ventilators.

Mot Thi Vo works at a machine to create medical equipment at Marpac on Monday, April 6. The facility will soon begin production of 500 respirators for Lovelace Medical Center. Olivia Harlow/The New Mexican

Stretching out the facility’s hours is far from the only challenge, Alcalde said. Before it can ramp up production of respirators, Marpac first has to find the materials to make them.

It’s had to get creative, seeking out alternative sources because the filtration materials used by large medical manufacturers are in such short supply.

“We’ve got to go outside the medical supply chain,” Alcalde said. “We don’t want to be fighting with 3M and Honeywell for these materials.”

Instead, Marpac is trying out filters used in an assortment of other consumer goods, such as heating and air conditioning systems, vacuum bags and pillows.

The company then sends its prototypes to Sandia National Laboratories, which tests the filtration rate of these unorthodox materials.

Greer said Marpac directors have visited Lovelace regularly in recent weeks to have the hospital’s workers try on new models of respirators the company is developing.

“I’ve very proud of what they’ve done,” Greer said. “They’ve worked tirelessly with the laboratories to get their supplies tested.”

Marpac has had the help of a large network of companies and government entities, including Sandia and Lovelace. Lujan Grisham’s office helped connect Marpac with Sandia, and even Amazon.com put the company in touch with vacuum bag manufacturers, Alcalde said.

Hanh Nguwen works at a welding machine to make tracheostomy equipment at Marpac on Monday, April 6. The machine will also be used to make 500 respirators for Lovelace Medical Center in coming weeks. Olivia Harlow/The New Mexican

The first respirators the company produces will likely provide lower levels of protection than those used by health care workers on the front lines, but in a time of great shortage, they’ll still be useful for other health care workers who aren’t working directly with patients. That, in turn, can free up more N95s for doctors and nurses, Alcalde said.

Eventually, as it does more and more testing, Marpac expects to get to the point where it can produce the coveted N95s.

Marpac expects to begin an initial production run of 500 units in about two weeks, and then scale up to 5,000 units per week by running its facility 12 hours a day.

The company plans to send all of those respirators to health care providers in central New Mexico, which Alcalde said are estimating they’ll need a total of around 6,000 N95 masks per week.

“We fully expect this to be an ongoing effort,” Alcalde said. “There’s not going to be a moment where we stop and say we’re done.”

Sending its respirators to New Mexico healthcare facilities will also help shortages of respirators in other states, Alcalde said, because New Mexico won’t be as dependent on procuring the equipment from elsewhere.

“In the event that we can say we’ve got New Mexico covered, that allows the supply to go to New York, New Orleans and Detroit,” he said. “It’s a global supply chain, and even if we can do something locally and relieve some pressure, it would impact the other areas.”

About 130 miles west on Interstate 40, Rhino Health is helping the state boost its supply of medical grade gloves.

The company, which opened a nitrile glove factory in a small Navajo community near Gallup last year, is aiming to double its production of gloves from 110,000 to 220,000 per day to try to meet the huge spike in demand fueled by the pandemic, CEO Mark Lee said.

“It’s not enough,” Lee said. “I have to get to double the volume very, very quickly.”

The 40-person factory is running its facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week in order to get that done.

Given the massive demand, Lee said he’s been getting calls and emails from organizations across the state and the country looking for more medical gloves. He said even the White House reached out.

“I’ve been getting over 100 emails a day and working 18 hours a day,” Lee said. “Nonstop.”

Lee said he’s made sure the state Department of Health and the Navajo Nation get enough gloves before he ships to other customers. He said Rhino sent 500,000 gloves to the Health Department.

“I’m going to do what I can to allocate the gloves I produce to local people and hospitals,” he said.

Despite all the hard work, and even though he’s at retirement age, Lee said he feels it’s necessary for his company to help as much as he can during the global health crisis.

“This is a war without guns,” Lee said. “We need to do everything possible.”               


Santa Fe New Mexican