Plastics Company Steps Up with COVID-19-related Products for Healthcare Workers

By George O’Brien

It’s called an ‘intubation box,’ or an ‘InTuBox,’ to be more specific.

As that name suggests, this is a box that helps shield healthcare workers while they are intubating a patient, thus helping reduce the likelihood of spreading infection.

Pia Kumar says the product was conceptualized by an anesthesiologist in Taiwan, and in what would still be considered limited use, it has proven successful in doing what it was designed to do. And now, the company she serves as president, Universal Plastics in Holyoke, will start to produce them for healthcare providers, with the first boxes due to roll out of the plant on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke early next week.

Production of the boxes is part of the company’s efforts — which mirror those of manufacturers across the region and, indeed, across the country — to adjust and retool for what many are calling a ‘wartime’ economy, while helping a healthcare sector desperate for essential equipment.

Indeed, in addition to the intubation boxes, the company is also producing face shields that can be used by those in healthcare industry and other sectors as well. Even individuals with compromised immune systems can use them at a time when everyone is trying to reduce their exposure to the dangerous virus.

Production of those shields commenced recently, and the company is on pace to produce roughly 1,000 of them per day, said Kumar, adding that these efforts were inspired by need, and the company’s desire to help meet it.

In a way, the story of how Universal has launched these initiatives — and how it is carrying out this specific mission — is a microcosm of the many-tentacled saga of COVID-19, touching almost every aspect of the pandemic, from the economic impact to the plight of the healthcare community as it girds for days that will be even worse than they are now, to the manner in which companies and individuals are going above and beyond.

Let’s start with the economic impact. Universal, like most every company in every sector, has been hard hit by the pandemic. Some of its major customers are in aerospace, one of the hardest-hit sectors, and many of its products — from seat backs to tray tables to arm rests — wind up in commercial airliners.

“It’s been very tough … we have a good company and a great workforce, and we’ll rebound from this, but this is certainly a very difficult time,” she explained. “Our number-one business is aerospace and airline interiors, and I don’t have to tell you how that’s doing these days, so our work has really slowed down.”

So the company was looking for ways to keep people employed and also contribute to what in many ways has become a war effort, said Kumar, adding that the company already produces a number of products for the healthcare industry — from diagnostic testing equipment to containers for sharp instruments — and has been hard-pressed by those customers to keep producing them in this time of great need.

“We were seeing how this situation was getting worse and how there was a shortage of PPE [personal protective equipment], and we thought about what we could make in-house that we could give to hospitals and other healthcare provides locally and across the country,” she told HCN, adding that two items that quickly emerged were face shields and the intubation boxes.

With the former, it’s a relatively simple product and one that it is certainly in demand. “We offered it around, and we’re getting a lot of interest from a lot of hospitals,” said Kumar. “That’s because these are reusable, they’re durable, and they can used by a number of people.”

She listed doctors, nurses, anesthesiologists, and workers in nursing homes, among others in the healthcare profession, and even individuals going to the grocery store — although those in healthcare are the company’s first priority.

As for the intubation boxes … as information about the product, which was conceptualized as the COVID-19 virus started its spread, started to filter into the healthcare community, some doctors approached Universal with inquiries about whether it could produce the item.

“It really started just last week,” she explained. “Baystate Medical Center reached out, as did a hospital in Miami, and we just thought the product was practical and made a good deal of sense.”

The company created a prototype and is slated to begin production on April 6, she went on, adding that some orders have been placed for a few hospitals in other markets, and Baystate is currently testing the product.

But producing these items will pose some challenges, said Kumar, noting that many employees at Universal, fearful of the spread of the virus, have not been coming to work.

But production of the face shields and the intubation boxes proceeds as remaining employees press on, assisted by some front-office workers who have stepped into the breach.

“People have rallied behind this PPE effort with the face shield and the intubation boxes,” she told HCN. “Some of the people in our front office are helping with the assembly of these face shields — everyone is pitching in, rallying behind this, and coming together.

“We’re not looking to turn a profit here — we’re selling these items at cost,” she said in conclusion. “We’re just trying to keep ourselves busy and do a little good if we can.”

From all appearances, she and her staff are succeeding with both missions.

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