Shared from the 3/24/2020 The Providence Journal eEdition

Manufacturer helps R.I. find 60,000 swabs

It bought them, sent them out for sterilization and hopes to have them back in R.I. within 10 days


Contech Medical Executive Vice President Frank Barrett holds a nasopharyngeal swab used for coronavirus testing that his company is helping supply in Rhode Island. [THE


PROVIDENCE — The calls came in last week from the state commerce agency to the old factory off Hartford Avenue that’s manufactured and packaged medical equipment since 1987.

We’re looking for swabs, two agency callers said. And not just any swabs, the specific nasopharyngeal swabs used for coronavirus testing. Can you help us?

Frank Barrett, executive vice president of Contech Medical Inc., told them: “We don’t work with those, but we can help you. We know how to find them.”

And the search was on.

Contech employs about 100 people locally. Half its business is manufacturing coils of thin plastic tubing used in medical procedures to guide catheter equipment into place.

It also packages all sorts of medical products, including dental implants, before they get shipped to a Massachusetts company for sterilization and eventual delivery.

Rhode Island, like states around the country, has been desperate to find enough of the 6-inch nasopharyngeal swabs to test all those who may have contracted COVID-19. The swab reaches far back into the nasal cavity where it joins the throat and where a fibrous tip collects a specimen.

Two companies make most of the world’s supply of swabs. One is in Italy. The other is Puritan Medical Products, in Maine’s North Woods. It employees 550 people in the town of Guilford, population 1,521.

Timothy Templet, a spokesman for Puritan, told The Journal on Monday that the 100-year-old family company is utterly overwhelmed by orders: “You just can’t fathom it,” he said. “It’s out of control.”

Last week, Puritan produced between 800,000 and 1 million swabs, he said, with the factory running around the clock. Now that the federal government is allowing other forms of swabs for testing, which Puritan also makes, he predicts the company could make 20 million swabs a month if it can find more workers and prepare its factory.

Barrett said he went looking online and eventually found 60,000 nasopharyngeal swabs through a New York distributor. Contech bought them all.

The swabs are all now still boxed up at Contech’s factory. Workers will place each swab into a separate Tyvek pouch that will then be sealed and the entire lot sent off for sterilization before returning to the factory.

Because of Contech’s long history in the market and the critical shortage of swabs, Barrett said the federal Food and Drug Administration has waived the usual months-long process of approval protocols.

“Our hope is these swabs are all back and in the state’s hands in the next 10 days, which would be phenomenal,” said Barrett.

Joseph Wendelken, spokesman for the Department of Health, said Monday that the state had agreed to accept the 60,000 swabs once they are ready for distribution.

Chris Byrnes, president of Contech, said the company isn’t looking to make a profit on the swabs, but is mostly just covering expenses.

“This just isn’t the time to be getting rich on something,” he said. “We just feel really good about what we are doing.”

Said Barrett: “We are all in it together.” tmooney@

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