Local makers and small businesses have responded to the COVID-19 crisis by using their skills to make face masks, hand sanitizers, and other protective gear for frontline workers and residents. As the number of confirmed cases increases in Allegheny County, so does the need for resources, especially for medical professionals. Now, various area businesses have stepped up to produce face shields to protect health-care providers from the virus.
Day Owl, a local backpack design company based in Homewood, recently converted its headquarters to start making more than 50,000 high-quality, medical-grade plastic face shields that will be distributed to physicians, nurses, and other health-care providers at Allegheny Health Network (AHN).
The shields are classified as N95 to comply with U.S. Food and Drug Administration definitions of equipment “used to protect the wearer from airborne particles and from liquid contaminating the face.” In addition to traditional disposable or cloth face masks, the shields last longer and are a more comprehensive form of protection for not only the mouth but the eyes and nose.
This adds to other efforts, including Infinite Labs, a pair of 3D printer hobbyists who are now using their tools to produce face shields.
Funded by the Richard King Mellon Foundation, the Heinz Endowments, and the Henry L. Hillman Foundation, the Day Owl project will provide critical medical supplies and employment. Though Day Owl had to shut down its operations and furlough three workers due to the COVID-19 stay-at-home order, the face shield project allowed them to hire those workers back. The company is also bringing on more workers — including 10 Homewood hires — to help with production.
“It feels great knowing that we can partake in assembling a product that will help people in the medical fields, public service, and even civilians who spend their days helping others,” says Homewood resident and Day Owl stitcher Brenda Joy Ponti in a press release.
Day Owl founder and CEO Ian Rosenberger describes how, in order to meet production needs, the company had to quickly obtain 30,000-square-feet of plastic from California and 11 linear miles of elastic from North Carolina.
“That’s almost an elastic half-marathon,” Rosenberger says. “I believe it was about to become underwear when we rescued it.”
Day Owl also reached out to fellow makers in Pittsburgh for die-casting and other essential manufacturing components. Among them is the nonprofit Protohaven, which provided the original design for the Day Owl face shields.
Sam Reiman, director of the Richard King Mellon Foundation, says the project demonstrates how “Pittsburgh’s young talent and longtime institutions” are “coming together to meet urgent community healthcare and economic needs.” In 2018, the foundation awarded $1.25 million to Day Owl’s parent company, Thread International, to create its Homewood facility.
“The maker community-led in this instance by Day Owl — is redirecting its creative talents, manufacturing capability, and entrepreneurial spirit to keep our frontline healthcare workers safe,” Reiman says. “And longtime Pittsburgh leadership institutions are helping them do it.”
While the project is focusing on AHN, Rosenberger encourages anyone who needs shields to contact him at email@example.com. Day Owl confirms that while the cost for the shields is still being finalized, it will be “competitive to the current market.”
Health-care workers aren't the only ones obtaining this form of protection. Earlier this month, IDL Worldwide, a division of Matthews International Corporation, announced it would make “significant shifts” to its business model to facilitate the mass production of face shields at its Butler-based print facility. Many of the units are designated for workers at Giant Eagle and Market District grocery stores, with the company projecting figures of a half-million shields per week.
The shields come at a time when Giant Eagle and Market District stores have seen an increase in confirmed COVID-19 cases among its workforce at locations on Old William Penn Highway in Murrysville, the Robinson Market District on Settlers Ridge Center Drive, and Pine Creek Giant Eagle on McKnight Road. Right now, the company is keeping a list of affected stores, along with confirmation that they were sanitized.
In addition to Giant Eagle, the company hopes to sell face shields to first responders and clients in retail and quick-serve restaurants. Currently, the shields are available at ranges of $3.10 per unit for orders of 100,000 or fewer, down to $2.15 per unit for 500,000 or more, according to a company estimate (the pricing does not include freight).
Ann Wilson, senior director of culture and people strategies at IDL, says the company is currently ramping up production for the week of April 13 and will "continue to expand our offering in terms of volume based on market demand."
Wilson adds that IDL is working with numerous facilities across "various industries," including existing clients within both retail and medical sectors, as well as new clients beyond the company’s current portfolio.
"We want to support both front-line workers in the medical field and the many others who risk their health and safety every day to provide essential goods and services to the public, which include retail partners who are part of IDL’s long-standing core network," says Wilson.