ZEELAND — As Brad Davis tracked news about the spread of the coronavirus in early March, he cautioned his production team at MedViron LLC that the company might need to shut down to do its part with social distancing.
At the time, his thinking was that the maker of medical furnishings had no need to keep production running. The best thing for the company and the employees was for them all to do their part in helping “flatten the curve” and curb the spread of the pandemic.
“If we have to shut down, we have to shut down, that is what it is,” said Davis, the founder and president of MedViron. “I don’t give a shit about making money — it’s bloody serious; it’s scary.”
But then the company started getting emails and phone calls from large health systems across the country inquiring about MedViron’s overbed tables and the lead times to get orders filled. One order led to another and all of a sudden, the company’s strategy had to change.
“I have big hospital systems that are contacting us in a panic needing overbed tables in order to get rooms open,” Davis said. “All of a sudden, it was like boom: In 24 hours, we had an order and we’re told that there’s going to be another order coming for another 30 units, and then we got another order from (an existing customer) who’s all of a sudden moving forward on a project. I think it’s just the start.”
Davis said Wednesday the company had an order backlog of nearly 300 units, with a realistic expectation that it would grow to nearly 900 units by the end of the week. One customer from New York asked if they could get the tables within two weeks as the hospital races to increase its bed space.
As health systems nationwide scramble to add capacity to deal with the rush of COVID-19 patients, it’s translating into brisk business for companies that deal with medical furniture and disinfection equipment.
At Zeeland-based Herman Miller Inc. (Nasdaq: MLHR), the contract furniture manufacturer’s health care division has seen customers inquire about expediting orders.
“We’re actually getting, in some cases on the health care side, people saying, ‘Can you hurry up?’” CFO Greg Bylsma said in a call with analysts in mid-March to discuss the company’s most recent quarterly results. “We have demand that maybe we didn’t have three or four weeks ago.”
While the health care division is a small part of Herman Miller’s overall business, accounting for about 15 percent of sales, “it is an interesting dynamic given all that’s going on,” Bylsma said.
Likewise, Cascade Township-based Skytron LLC, a distributor of capital equipment for hospitals and other industries, has seen a rush of interest in its UVC disinfection robots, which are deployed in rooms to kill viruses like the coronavirus, bacteria and fungi.
“In the last three to four weeks, we’ve had inquiries and orders that probably are greater than what we had all of last year for these products. It’s just ramping up even more,” said Craig Wassenaar, president and CFO of Skytron.
Focus on cleanliness
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, health care acquired infections in American hospitals account for an estimated 1.7 million infections and 99,000 associated deaths each year.
As awareness about the threat spreads, more health care organizations are prioritizing furnishings that are easy to clean, as well as deploying disinfection products that kill contagions in the hospital setting.
For disinfection product designer UV Angel of Grand Haven, “We have seen a tremendous uptick in demand across the country for our technology,” CEO Tom Byrne said.
The company produces a device that attaches atop laptop computers or equipment such as medical carts. The device uses ultraviolet light to disinfect and sanitize surfaces, including for coronavirus.
A new product that’s about the come to market from UV Angel, called UV Air, fits into ceiling light fixtures. Air goes in one side of the fixtures, passes under the ultraviolet light, and then exits clean on the other side.
“We have seen the interest as we have been in the design and production phases for our air technology going back to late last year,” Byrne said. “When the situation that we’re faced with hit, the curve went up substantially over the last 60 days.”
UV Angel initially targets its innovation toward the health care sector, a strategy that took on heightened importance in the coronavirus pandemic. UV Angel, which manufactures the device at GHSP in Grand Haven and at an Atlanta company, expects to announce new partnerships soon to scale up production.
“Our products represent a real protection mechanism for our health care workers, our doctors, our nurses, our first responders. Those are the individuals we really need to focus on,” Byrne said.
Designed for use
For the MedViron overbed table, Davis focused on designing a product that was easily cleaned in a move to help stem hospital acquired infections.
“There’s such demand on getting those rooms turned around and they only have a certain amount of time, so if something’s very complex and difficult to clean, it doesn’t get cleaned. That’s one of the things that our overbed table is addressing, so people are going after it and they’re buying it,” he said. “Everybody in the whole hospital is involved in the overbed table. Interior design, architecture, inspection control, nurses, housekeeping, maintenance — everybody has a piece of that thing. You don’t realize it’s the second most-touched thing in the room after the bed.”
Jerome Alicki, customer service and marketing manager at MedViron, added that the overbed table’s seamless top provides “nowhere for bacteria and viruses to hide, and the material we use on the top surface is resistant to degradation from hospital cleaning chemicals.”
“If that surface can be cleaned easily and effectively, there is potential to reduce risk of hospital acquired infection or re-infection from contact with that surface,” Alicki said.
MedViron sells its products via dealers in all 50 states, but the recent push of orders for overbed tables has come from major health systems in Ohio, Texas, New York and southern California.
Inside the plant, the company has taken measures to spread workers at least 12 feet apart from one another and switched to 10-hour shifts four days a week. Workers also clean all door handles and hand tools every two hours.
As well, personnel who do not work on the manufacturing floor have been working remotely to encourage social distancing and reduce interactions. That includes Davis, who has been working mostly from home in recent weeks.
“It’s really hard on me because I feel like you should be there to lead, but I also understand that leading right now is showing people that you need to stay away,” Davis said, noting that the pace of change and the rapid-fire flow of information is adding to the difficulty.
“It changes every bloody hour practically,” Davis said. “It’s really bizarre, and sometimes it’s overwhelming, but you’ve got to have the mindset that (coronavirus) is just not going to beat us.”
A similar situation is playing out at Skytron, where up to 80 percent of the company’s employees are working remotely, except for the warehouse staffers.
“We’re doing all that we can to keep our employees safe. We’re monitoring everything and keeping clients updated, but it’s a very fluid plan,” Wassenaar said. “For one, as soon as you release something and update people, things change an hour later. We’re doing our best and everyone’s faced with this right now.”
As well, the company uses its UVC robots to disinfect all conference rooms, common areas, bathrooms and “any other areas that people feel like they would be more comfortable if we hit those hard,” he said.
With hospitals focused on treating COVID-19 patients, Skytron is experiencing delays on some of its projects for the foreseeable future, while it’s running into supply chain challenges with its disinfection products.
“It’s going to be challenging,” Wassenaar said. “We don’t have complete knowledge right now of what’s going to happen. We’ve been pretty transparent with our employees and with our network of suppliers and customers and we always err on the side of being open with people about the status of things. We’ll get through it. We have great partners. We’ve been in communication, too, with outside advisers and bankers just to let them know how things were going and most people are extremely understanding of the situation.”
As a “critical infrastructure” business, Skytron’s essential employees stayed on the job after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued a stay-home order on March 23, while practicing social distancing and taking various health precautions.
Grand Rapids-based furniture company Steelcase Inc. (NYSE: SCS) also received designation as a key supplier from its health care industry customers and continues to work on filling their orders, President and CEO Jim Keane told brokerage analysts last week in a call to discuss quarterly results.
“We are continuing to serve health care customers. We’re continuing to do actual real-time co-design and special kinds of products they need just for this crisis as well, and we’ll be able to continue to do that,” Keane said.
Steelcase said last week that it temporarily laid off “nearly all” of its hourly manufacturing and distribution employees in Michigan in response to the stay-home executive order that forced non-essential businesses to close. Only essential businesses or suppliers to those businesses were allowed to remain open.
At MedViron, company executives opted to close the plant when the order took effect, but will reopen on Monday, March 30 at the urging of customers. Several hospitals sent the company letters designating it as a critical supplier that would allow it to stay open and make overbed tables, which they said were necessary in their efforts to add hospital capacity to combat COVID-19.
As he wrestled with the decision to ramp up production, Davis said his priority is keeping his workers safe and making sure the company can do its part to combat the public health crisis.
“It’s a national issue that we have to solve together,” he said. “Everyone understands the gravity of the situation.”
Echoing Davis, Wassenaar said the current situation and the response from the business community has been unprecedented.
“It’s something I’ve never seen in my career, how everybody’s banded together — the government included — to be flexible as people are going through the challenges,” he said.