‘MADE in New Jersey’ Manufacturing Played Major Role in Providing Proper Protection Against COVID
Clifton, NJ manufacturer, BLUETRACK, Inc., and Paterson, NJ’s, Protective Health Gear continue to produce and supply face masks and respirators. Both truly exemplify what it means to be ‘MADE in New Jersey’ during a time when there was an overwhelming need for PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). They immediately pivoted their business to producing these critical products and at the same time, employed residents in a time when layoffs were commonplace.
New Jersey manufacturers have been at the forefront in the battle against COVID-19 since the pandemic reached the East Coast. Two of the Garden State’s face mask manufacturers have been leading efforts to make masks/respirators that are NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) approved to ensure residents and employees in the state will always have access to proper protection against COVID. With new viral variants being discovered every few months, these ‘MADE in New Jersey’ manufacturers are crucial in the battle against the virus.
Supply Chain Close to Home – COVID-19 Masks
BLUETRACK shifted their focus from producing pens, keychain lights and stress balls to producing masks due to their experience selling health-related products that included hand sanitizers. They originally planned to produce N95 respirators; however, focused on making surgical masks after the state expressed a need for them. They’ve sold over 10 million masks as of today.
“When the pandemic happened, we got in touch with someone we knew in the governor’s office and reached out saying that we could produce this stuff for them. They indicated that besides the sanitizers, they need the masks and they asked if we would be willing to do it,” explained Bluetrack President, Sean Glasser. “We looked into it and we basically jumped on board right away to make the masks. We were one of the first companies to pull the trigger. We were one of the first companies to get FDA approval, if not the first in New Jersey. We had a crash course in mask making when the whole state was locked down. By the end of May we were really starting to produce them efficiently. Since May 2020, now we’re going on almost 2 years, we got really good at making masks.”
As for Protective Health Gear, the opportunity came as a result of CEO Brian Wolin’s occupation as a chiropractor and his brother-in-law, Evan Schulman who’s a high-volume manufacturer of displays. They leaned on their expertise to start producing respirators. Wolin and Schulman couldn’t continue operating as a result of the lockdown. This resulted in them working together to meet demand.
“We watched the President (Trump), we watched the Vice President (Pence). We watched Governor Murphy. We watched Governor Cuomo at that particular time saying, ‘We need PPE, we need it now and we need it made here and we’re willing to help you retool your factories. We’ll help you financially and these are the things we need,’ said Wolin. “We watched day-in and day-out. We watched nurses and doctors wearing garbage bags instead of gowns because they didn’t have any. Wearing bandanas because they didn’t have NIOSH-approved N95 respirators, and we were appalled. We felt that it was our duty to take action to loving our country and loving the people and me being in healthcare and I reached out to the CDC to see if there was a way that we could receive NIOSH approval. We asked ourselves, ‘What’s the one thing that we can make that can really stop this from happening’?”
There are many PPE products being sold; however, many don’t provide adequate protection against COVID and other pathogens. Many of those products are made overseas in countries such as China and Malaysia where the government guidelines are different from the United States’. These products may be cheaper to purchase, but they don’t necessarily provide enough protection. In the US, the FDA and CDC set strict guidelines to ensure individuals have the proper percentage of protection from the virus. According to the CDC, NIOSH-approved N95 Particulate Filtering Facepiece Respirators are the standard for adequate protection against the Coronavirus. Companies including Protective Health Gear are recognized and listed on the NIOSH website as approved N95 respirator manufacturers.
KN95s, surgical masks, cloth masks and anything else used as a face covering isn’t as effective as a NIOSH-approved N95 respirator. NIOSH is part of the CDC, in the US Department of Health and Human Services. All respirators and masks must go through thorough and strict tests to be NIOSH-approved. Each product must filter at least 95% of airborne particles. Despite KN95s being touted as a surefire way to protect you, respirators with this label or any PPE certified to international standards aren’t NIOSH-approved.
“Most surgical masks all look the same but it’s kind of like two cars that look the same and one has a Corvette engine and the other has basically a bicycle engine. Something small. All the materials are sourced from the US. So, the filtering is US-made and it’s 99 percent bacterial filtration so 99 percent of bacteria and viruses are blocked out. People might buy from Malaysia or even China, but some of them are rated as low as 80 percent filtration. It’s a big difference but you really don’t know,” Glasser explained. “They level the masks Level 1, 2 & 3 for surgical masks. Ours are a Level 3 so that means that it’s over 98% filtration. Blood and liquid can’t get through. So they’re basically waterproof. If you ever spill water on the front of your surgical mask and it beads up, that’s for doctors and hospitals that the blood’s not coming through and then going in their mouth. That’s really what makes it a higher grade. Also, the breathability of it. You have to have protection but not be like plastic where you can’t actually breathe in and out. The ones that we make are Level 3 which are the highest grade and block out a lot of the viruses or bacteria that are in the air. We also use a hypoallergenic material that is sourced in the US.”
Manufacturing Invested in the Nation
Companies such as Protective Health Gear and Bluetrack invested in expensive machinery to manufacture the NIOSH-approved masks. These companies have gone through many hurdles to produce NIOSH-approved PPE. In addition, they have the capacity and trained staff to produce high-quality respirators and face masks. With COVID constantly mutating into new variants, such as BA.2, their products are still effective in filtering out the virus.
Bluetrack sells their products directly through their website or on Amazon.
“They’re effective against basically any virus that’s out there. Any of the common ones that you know about, the N95 does filter out,” Glasser said. “The size of the virus is really what’s important for the N95 or even any mask in general. All the masks are basically the same size. They’re just slightly different in terms of how they’re structured. Any virus that’s a specific size or bigger will get trapped and not enter. Any virus that’s COVID-19 size or bigger, it stops. If you are going to a hospital for a visit, or maybe in the middle of the pandemic if you are on a train or something, you really should be wearing it but there’s a huge difference. My brother wears the thing you pull over your face. The gaiter. That’s not really doing anything compared to an actual good filtering mask. Get a good one anyway because you’re just going to be wasting your time if you’re not wearing something that’s actually working.”
Since states and cities have relaxed their face mask requirements, the demand has decreased. This has posed a challenge for the PPE manufacturers who rely heavily on contracts to thrive as a business. In addition, overseas manufacturers are producing PPE at a slightly cheaper price but may not provide sufficient protection from COVID or other viruses. Both businesses expressed concerns regarding challenges they’re currently facing.
“The challenge has always been the same. With the Chinese masks, they’re cheaper than we can produce them and there’s really no way around them. Just the labor is more expensive here and they’re not apples to apples in terms of the quality but one of our difficulties is not so much the buyer like an individual would prefer American-made. Even a hospital prefers American-made,” Glasser explained. “They’re (the government) very black and white about it. ‘Well it’s not a requirement so it doesn’t matter.’ We’ve been on orders that they just say they don’t care if it’s made in the USA or not which is the most surprising because I guess they’re supposed to care more but that’s probably been a challenge is just getting them to pay. It’s only 2 cents more, the US vs Chinese so they’re not really saying hey we don’t want to pay 30 cents and the Chinese are 5 cents. It’s 5 cents per the 3 cents and they’re just being sticklers about the price. I see that often and it’s unfortunate because you could have a healthy industry here if more local governments just considered US-made products as a priority. If more of the local governments believe in US-made products, you would see more manufacturers pop up. The money recirculates. Instead, the money goes overseas and it doesn’t come back.”
Wolin’s sentiment is the same. Protective Health Gear sold millions of respirators during the height of the pandemic but sales have been drastically impacted since. As a result, he’s had to layoff many New Jersey residents on his staff. He pointed out sales aren’t the main reason for getting into this business. It’s knowing his products protect people from COVID. You can purchase their products directly on the website or through Amazon. They offer discounts just by signing up to receive their emails.
“We’re not interested in sales. For us, we got into this about helping to make great quality product that people need and I feel comfortable if I close my doors today, that I know indirectly I have to have save lives,” Wolin enthusiastically said. “Somebody put on our N95, didn’t catch COVID, didn’t bring it home to their family, their grandparents, their parents, their children. Somebody didn’t wind up in the hospital and somebody didn’t die. I know that. It has to have happened.”
‘MADE in New Jersey’ Needs State Support
Wolin may relocate his business to another state that will work with him if the opportunity presents itself unless local governments and New Jersey step in to help, “We’ve had no support from the state of New Jersey. No one has helped us. In fact, so much so that we’ve thought about leaving New Jersey. No contracts. No orders whatsoever from the state. We did get one order from Bergen County. We happen to have some success with hospitals but nothing from the state of New Jersey.”
With COVID constantly mutating into new variants and the possibilities of cities, towns, and states requiring people to wear masks in public such as Philadelphia, PA’s recent mandate, there is a need for PPE. Since New Jersey is home to NIOSH-approved PPE manufacturers, it is crucial for the state and local governments to continue supporting these businesses. With the support, these manufacturers have the capacity to quickly respond to future pandemics while employing many New Jersey residents. All their success leaves a measurable impact on their local community, the economy, and the safety of the nation.