Old Fort manufacturer shifts to making face shields, masks for first responders

Old Fort manufacturer shifts to making face shields, masks for first responders

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One of McDowell County’s newest and most innovative manufacturers is pivoting its production to make protective equipment that will be used by first responders during the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, Kitsbow, a leading manufacturer of cycling apparel and accessories, moved its operations from the San Francisco bay area to Old Fort and created new jobs here. Using materials from all over the world, Kitsbow makes jerseys, jackets, hoodies, shorts, gloves, socks, ankle and knee warmers, caps and water bottles for cycling enthusiasts.

But with the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, Kitsbow has changed its production to make personal protective equipment (PPE) that will be used by first responders. The company is now making both reusable masks and face shields for paramedics and health care workers.

Chief Executive Officer David Billstrom said to The McDowell News his company has been making these for just a few days now but the word about them has spread like wildfire on the Internet and social media. In addition to working as a manufacturer, Billstrom has been a first responder for many years.

“One of our several quirks is that I have been a first responder and EMT for 38 years, since before we wore gloves when treating patients, and have a deep appreciation for PPE,” he said. “So we’ve been very focused on keeping our team safe, so we can keep working.”

Back around the first of the month, Billstrom and other Kitsbow officials started taking measures to protect their employees from the coronavirus.

“Here in Old Fort, we instituted numerous practices to keep our makers safe back on Monday March 2, when we pulled the fire alarm handle, so to speak,” he said to The McDowell News. “We were seeing delays from Asia on raw material, and frankly studying the math and listening to scientists. Life-long friends and family members who are researchers helped us see the danger, and we were committed to keeping our staff safe.”

Among other things, Kitsbow has a full-time person simply cleaning the facility and equipment. The employees frequently wipe down their machines and practice “social distancing.” The company has sent home four different employees who were ill, but all have been verified as COVID-19 negative, according to Billstrom.

All of the employees wear masks when working, just in case they might contaminate the PPE products.

“How did we get into this?” said Billstrom on Monday. “Well we’ve only been a PPE manufacturer for three days now. We reached out to my close friends in EMS, fire departments and emergency management last Thursday morning to see if there was an interest in plastic face shields and fabric face masks, based on what we were hearing. Since then orders are pouring in. I don’t have an accurate count this morning, but I believe we’re at about 30,000 units requested and word is spreading.”

Billstrom posted on social media four pictures on Saturday morning shift of his company making face shields for first responders and medical providers, as well as their first prototype of the fabric mask and it went viral, he said.

“We know we’re not the only ones doing this, and yesterday morning we had only been in the business for 48 hours,” he said to The McDowell News. “But it touched a nerve, and that social media posting has exploded the incoming orders.”

“This is our first production prototype of a reusable mask of approximately N95 effectiveness,” Billstrom said on his Facebook post. “Our talented product design team jumped on this challenge, while the production team made 100s of face shields today.

“This second product will go into production Monday morning with raw materials we already have in Old Fort. The first 50 are headed to Oregon by lunchtime. Kitsbow is pivoting to help.”

As for the regular business of making cycling apparel, Kitsbow is a digital, direct-to-consumer brand. The company has seen online shopping drop about 60% so far.

“It is both frightening to see the need nationwide, and hear some of the stories (smaller hospitals with two days’ worth of masks right now) and gratifying to our crew here in Old Fort to be making a difference,” he said to The McDowell News.

Since that post, Kitsbow has heard from hospitals, doctors and charitable foundations. “We are worried about access to raw material,” he said to The McDowell News. “We own plenty of fabric and elastic, but production is choked right now for lack of plastic bags to protect individual finished product, plastic sheeting for the face shields, and so forth. We have four people dedicated just to sourcing, and we’re calling suppliers this weekend and offering to drive to pick up the goods.”

In addition, Kitsbow is hearing from people who want to help and work at the company to meet this urgent demand. Billstrom and his team are directing people to MasksForLoveWNC@gmail.com and they are taking job applications online at Kitsbow.com/Careers for Makers.

“It is truly a privilege to provide good jobs to the hard-working people in Old Fort that help save lives. Truly to be of service,” said Billstrom.

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