Duluth companies review production after making personal protective equipment – Duluth News Tribune

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When personal protective equipment shortages made headlines early in the COVID-19 pandemic, several Duluth businesses stepped in to help.

Two of those companies, Frost River Trading Co. and Duluth Pack, have manufactured thousands of units of equipment for healthcare workers. One of them, Frost River, stopped its production of protective equipment because it was meeting the needs of its local customers. Duluth Pack, however, still produces the gear, as it has a nationwide customer base that demands it.

Like its canvas and leather bags, Duluth Pack’s reusable hospital gowns reach customers nationwide.

A dentist wears a reusable gown made by Duluth Pack. The company shifted to making personal protective equipment when the coronavirus started keeping staff employed and helping frontline healthcare workers. (Photo courtesy of Duluth Pack)

So far, Duluth Pack has made approximately 30,000 gowns for hospitals, dental offices, assisted living facilities and other medical facilities – and has decided to continue producing gowns for the long term.

Gowns, said CEO and Chairman Tom Sega, are 75% more cost effective than single-use gowns because they can be disinfected and reused up to 50 times.

The company began making hospital gowns when Sega explored ways to reopen the business. It closed in the early months of the pandemic due to a state order mandating the closure of non-essential businesses.

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A Duluth Pack staff member sews a reusable hospital gown, which will eventually be sent to a medical facility. (Photo courtesy of Duluth Pack)

“Our biggest goal was to get our people back to work, because they’re no different than you and me. People have mortgages, rent, car payments, food to put on the table (and) families,” Sega said. He added that they also wanted to provide materials for frontline healthcare workers.

The production of personal protective equipment has proven to be a viable business venture for Duluth Pack. With orders pouring in steadily, the company added production staff, invested in new machinery and adjusted existing machines to work better with the lighter material used in its hospital gowns, Sega said.

“We can expand as a business into a market we never thought we’d be in… (and) we can meet the needs of (medical facilities),” he said.

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Customers browse wares at Frost River Trading Co.’s newly renovated space on Thursday, September 24. The space features new flooring, floor-to-ceiling display cases and a new entrance leading customers to and from Love Creamery. (Tyler Schank / [email protected])

Frost River, like Duluth Pack, would have been shut down for months had it not switched to making personal protective equipment.

Chris Benson, owner of Frost River, said it suspended production of the protective gear in mid-July. Frost River had met the needs of St. Luke’s Hospital and Essentia Health — the reason for switching from the oilcloth bag company to making face shields and masks. Frost River no longer received requests other than local requests.

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Joy Amireault, who works as a registered nurse at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center, said Frost River’s support of local hospitals with donations of protective gear has encouraged her to return her support. Amireault was buying a sweatshirt and proudly carrying a Frost River shoulder bag. (Tyler Schank / [email protected])

To manufacture its equipment, the company purchased 24 sewing machines. These machines are now quiet because they can’t handle the heavy canvas and leather materials used in Frost River’s bags, Benson said.

“These are quick, fast little machines” that are ideal for making masks, he said. Frost River will keep the machines in case there is an increased need for masks or if the company embarks on creating new, lighter products.

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Sophie Jezierski calls a Frost River Trading Co. customer on Thursday, September 24. Jezierski’s shirt reads “We will always support you”. (Tyler Schank / [email protected])

They also hired 53 temporary part-time employees to help with production. Most of the new employees were students looking for summer jobs. Frost River was able to keep a dozen of them on staff to help with production and retail sales, he said.

“They all really felt like they were making a difference — and they were,” Benson said.

If more is ultimately needed, Benson said Frost River will return to producing protective gear. However, the company would likely rent new production space, as the retail space, where they would manufacture the equipment, would have reopened on Thursday after “extensive” renovations.

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