The Journal Gazette
Sunday, March 29, 2020 1:00 am

Local companies join the fight

Switch production to hand sanitizer, protective gear

SHERRY SLATER | The Journal Gazette

Business is anything but usual at some Fort Wayne companies that have adapted production to meet local needs during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Among them are Cinda B, Vera Bradley Inc. and Three Rivers Distilling Co.

Cinda B, which makes fabric handbags and accessories, has stopped regular production and begun churning out face masks and isolation gowns for health care workers.

Vera Bradley, Cinda B's higher-profile competitor, is also making masks – although they aren't medical grade.

Three Rivers Distilling usually makes vodka, rum, gin, bourbon and rye. These days, the company's alcohol is instead being mixed with hydrogen peroxide and glycerol to make hand sanitizer.

Three Rivers Distilling had produced more than 600 gallons of hand sanitizer as of Wednesday afternoon, more than one-third of the way toward meeting its initial goal of 1,500 gallons, President Marla Schneider said.

But the company isn't planning to stop once it meets that amount.

“We are in this for the long haul,” she said. “Our ownership is very supportive of this.”

As luck would have it, the plastic used in Cinda B's hanging organizer cosmetic bags “is a perfect fit for the face shields hospitals need,” the company said.

Bob Hinty, who owns Cinda B and Hentz Manufacturing, has a goal of producing 100,000 each of masks, gowns and face shields. But he has pledged to continue the effort as long as the items are needed.

The companies have faced sourcing challenges while reorganizing production.

Cinda B officials had to locate and buy material approved for use in protective personal equipment. Hinty's years of experience and network of contacts allowed him to track down the necessary raw materials, spokeswoman Anna Rudicel said.

The company's sewing staff, which numbered about 20 and growing as of Tuesday, is local. That shortened the time it took to ramp up production.

“They were able to pivot pretty quickly over the course of a few days,” she said.

Vera Bradley, which relies on overseas suppliers to manufacture most of its products, is taking longer.

“We're fervently working to get the much-needed distribution of masks, scrubs, and other health care items up and running,” spokeswoman Holly Ryan said in an email. 

“We are pursuing medical grade (material) with vendors in Asia for health care use and also manufacturing commercial grade (non-medical) with our own manufacturers and manufacturing facility in Fort Wayne, which we hope to make available to our customers once we have fulfilled all health care needs,” she said Thursday.

Vera Bradley's local workers are able to sew general protection masks out of the company's Roanoke distribution facility. Ryan didn't know how many workers are involved.

“At the moment, health care facilities are asking for commercial grade masks not for their health care workers but, in some cases, for patients, visitors, etc.,” Ryan said.

Vera Bradley officials, who are working with local hospitals, aren't currently providing the masks to the general public but are exploring the possibility, she said.

Three Rivers Distilling also had some sourcing problems, suddenly needing hydrogen peroxide and glycerol to mix with its alcohol. The result is a watery mixture that can easily be sprayed – as opposed to the gel-like consistency of hand sanitizer commonly sold in stores, Schneider said.

The Medicine Chest Pharmacy, a local independent retailer, has donated the necessary glycerol, and local natural deodorant maker North Coast Organics has provided the hydrogen peroxide, she said.

“The outpouring of support has been enormous, and we're just so grateful,” she said.

Schneider said the biggest challenge for Three Rivers Distilling has been keeping up with government regulations.

The distillery is following guidelines established by the World Health Organization, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Previous recommendations called for hand sanitizer to be 60% to 80% alcohol. The new minimum, adopted after the coronavirus outbreak, is 80%, Schneider said.

Three Rivers Distilling is one of more than 350 distillers nationwide that have shifted to hand sanitizer production, according to the Distilled Spirits Council, a Washington-based industry association.

Three Rivers Distilling is giving away its hand sanitizer to organizations based on the Fort Wayne-Allen County Health Department's priority list: critical services, including hospitals and first responders; open child care centers and homeless shelters; open restaurants; open groceries; and open food banks.

It costs the company $12 per gallon to make hand sanitizer. That doesn't include labor or overhead. Even so, officials are refusing payment when offered. Instead, they direct grateful recipients to their online fundraising page.

Almost $4,000 had been raised toward the company's $16,000 GoFundMe request as of Wednesday afternoon, Schneider said. The full amount would allow the company to buy supplies to make more than 1,320 gallons – about 10 times what it has already produced.

“We're all humbled,” she said, “by the generosity we've seen in the community.”

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