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Wisconsin Businesses Pivot To Help Health Care Providers During Pandemic

Area Companies Providing Tents, Making Masks, Hand Sanitizer

bottles of hand sanitizer at the Prairie Distillery, which has switched from making liquor to making hand sanitizer due to the coronavirus pandemic
A customer buys two 8 oz. bottles of hand sanitizer at the Prairie Distillery, which has switched from making liquor to making hand sanitizer due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Guthrie, Okla., Saturday, March 21, 2020. The bottles of liquor, which are their usual production item, are not for retail sale. The large container at right allows first responders and healthcare professionals to refill containers of hand sanitizer for free. Sue Ogrocki/AP Photo

While many Wisconsin businesses have closed to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, some companies have shifted gears to help hospitals and health care workers.

Health care providers across the country have reported ongoing and dire shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) including hospital gowns, face shields and respiratory N95 face masks.

Last week, the Wisconsin Hospital Association reached out to the construction trades through the state Department of Workforce Development and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce asking them to donate any unused N95 masks to their local hospital.

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Dozens of smaller businesses have stepped up, too.

Family-owned company Canopies, a Milwaukee-based event rental company, would normally be booked with spring weddings and parties. But the COVID-19 pandemic halted business until owner David Hudak contacted Advocate Aurora Health.

The health care provider, which has hospitals in Illinois and throughout eastern Wisconsin, is now contracting with Canopies to provide tents to its hospitals in both states.

The tents are being used as a triage area before patients are taken into emergency rooms, Hudak said.

“It’s really great to be part of something that is helping during this crisis,” Hudak said. “It’s also good to know that I don’t have to lay off my guys during this. We would have had to shut down completely — for an unknown amount of time.”

After seeing footage of health care workers putting sandwich bags and bandanas over their faces because masks weren’t available, Jalem Getz, the CEO of Milwaukee-based clothing retailer and personal styling company, Wantable, decided to use his large customer-base to help.

On Tuesday, Wantable launched a program called Sew Good to Give It Back. The company is crowdsourcing at-home sewing volunteers to create and donate face masks.

After completing a survey, seamstresses are sent everything they need, including a prepaid return label. Wantable will inspect the masks and send them to health care providers, first locally, then statewide and even nationally.

In just 24 hours, Getz has been pledged nearly 8,000 masks.

“If we can grow it to even 10,000 or even 20,000 masks per day, we can have an incredible impact,” Getz said. “A true and incredible impact and trust that Wantable is going to get the masks in to the hands of those people who need it. This could be two weeks, three weeks, two months, we don’t care, we’re really focusing on this.”

In Horicon, the one-man operator of Tornado Brewing has developed an edible hand sanitizer.

Dennis Erb said doing so is the same process as making moonshine — his hand sanitizer has 80 percent alcohol. And so far, it has been a hit with customers and companies that can’t find hand sanitizer elsewhere.

“There are a lot of places inquiring,” Erb said. “The U.S. Postal Service, a couple blood donation places and assisted living facilities.”

Erb said after the coronavirus pandemic ends, he will continue making the hand sanitizer.

“Being a hand sanitizer in a time of need is one thing, but I didn’t realize how much people actually like the product,” Erb said.

Medline Industries is converting one of its manufacturing lines to begin producing up to 150,000 bottles a week of hand sanitizer by mid-April. “This represents about a 40 percent increase over the historic rate for the size of bottle that we have been shipping,” Alan Weiss the company’s division president explained.

Weiss said Medline already produces bottled antiseptic at its Hartland plant, so the company realized that by making some modifications, it could pivot to sanitizer.

Midwest Products and Engineering in Milwaukee is also lending a hand to help with the new coronavirus. The company has been monitoring how well the health care system can handle an increase in patients due to the pandemic. The company is anticipating the need for additional medical carts for equipment like ventilators to be placed on, as COVID-19 cases increase.

Rick Zanardo, vice president of business development of the company, said they hope to increase production capacities and produce thousands of medical carts. Zanardo said everyone is trying to figure out the best path forward.

“We are trying to do this as quickly as possible,” Zanardo said. “There are a lot of moving parts in addressing the issue.”

Midwest Products and Engineering and Medline Industries have been reaching out to different distribution companies and hospitals to ensure they are producing products that fit everyone’s needs.

Local hospitals say they are open to taking these donations. Froedtert and The Medical College of Wisconsin Health Network and Aurora are accepting masks, eye protection including goggles and safety glasses, hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol and hand sewn masks. Aurora also said it would accept disinfectant wipes.