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Industry Manufacturing Pivots to Medical-Grade Products for COVID-19 Management

School bus drivers aren't the only ones who are altering their missions in response to the coronavirus.

A nationwide search for respirator masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) that hospitals and first responders desperately need to combat the coronavirus pandemic, and companies that serve the student transportation industry are transforming their operations to meet the demand.

For example, Texas-based Heavy Duty Bus Parts (HDBP), known for providing various parts, equipment and accessories to school districts and bus contractors nationwide, said it is ready for production of surgical masks. THe company also created an N95 mask prototype and sent it to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) for testing and certification for medical use.

Branden Smeltzer, the company’s general manager, told School Transportation News on Thursday that he initially formed the idea to transition manufacturing the masks weeks ago while watching news reports about the coronavirus impact on hospitals. He also spoke his sister, who is a doctor, and she confirmed for him the dire shortage of medical-grade masks.

“I kept hearing about PPE and a possible shortage. I also knew that about 85 percent of our customers were shutting down due to stay-at-home orders, or due to a decision made by the superintendent of schools in their respective areas,” he later explained in a press release the company issued that details the new manufacturing effort.

Smeltzer said the masks are a vital solution not only for hospitals and first responders, but also school bus drivers who are still operating routes to deliver food to students, and especially Heavy Duty Bus Parts employees.

“Most people in our industry don’t know how small [Heavy Duty Bus Parts is]. We’re a family of 11 here and laying off our staff was never an option for us,” he said. “We already have most of the machinery needed, so I immediately began researching face mask standards, contacting elected officials and evaluated start costs, which led to purchasing some equipment, raw materials and ultimately our first prototype out of some school bus specific textiles we had available in our warehouse.”

Meanwhile, the company is awaiting medical-grade raw materials to arrive from a supplier so factory staff can finish manufacturing the surgical masks. Heavy Duty Bus Parts said it expects to have its first completed run next week, adding that it hopes to receive the N95 certification from NIOSH within the next 10 business days.

The current expected output utilizing existing staff is 5,000 completed masks a day, Smeltzer said, and the company could cut another 58,000 unfinished masks a day, if needed.

HDBP is also looking to expand its manufacturing to meet the demand for surgical gowns and headwear.

“With the uncertainty of what the future of our business is, we are still committed to doing our part to support those who need it most,” said Kristen Billingsley, president and owner of Heavy Duty Bus Parts, in a statement. “We are in an industry that bleeds yellow, and everyone is committed to the ultimate goal of saving children’s lives. HDBP will always bleed that yellow, but right now, the country needs to bleed red and white for those medical professionals putting their lives on the line every single day, and we need to do that in a responsible manner, not looking at it as a way to get rich.”

Elsewhere, USSC Group, which owns the Fogmaker brand of fire suppression systems that are used in some school buses, announced on Tuesday that it has pivoted its operations to manufacture PPE face shields for doctors, nurses and hospital staff.

The company said it is combining 3D printing technology with its manufacturing capabilities to produce face shields to help keep “our frontline heroes safe and healthy.” USSC had delivered over 5,000 face shields since March 26 and said it expected to ship another 10,000 by the end of this week.

AMETEK Land, a UK-based temperature measurement manufacturer that also produces vehicle circulation pumps utilized in school buses, released a fever screening thermal imaging system designed for highly accurate human body temperature measurement. The company said in a statement that the product could play a fundamental role in helping to contain the spread of COVID-19.

The vIRalert 2 fixed thermal imaging system provides an accurate and remote surface measurement of body temperature, automatically alerting the operator to elevated temperatures.

How is your company or organization addressing the coronavirus outbreak? Email ryan@stnonline.com to share your story. 


Related: Why Are Some Districts Not Paying School-Bus Contractors During Coronavirus Closures?
Related: School District Employees Provide Community Connections During COVID-19 Closures
Related: School Bus Safety Resources


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