N95 masks made in America by Arkansas veterinarian

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Over the past year, veterinarians have done everything to ensure the safety of employees and customers in their practices, from implementing a curb service to more regular disinfection of surfaces to storing personal protective equipment. But maybe no one has gone as far as Dr. Rob Conner, owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospitals in Mountain Home, Arkansas. He decided that ordering N95 respirators wasn’t enough. Instead, he would make his own.

After the first cases hit the Seattle area in January and February, Dr. Conner went to clinics there to understand what they were seeing. Shortly afterwards, he erected Plexiglas barriers in his own clinics, was given disinfectant spray, similar to the one used in airplanes, and locked the waiting room for customers in favor of roadside service.

That February, he also ordered 18,000 KN95 masks from China for $ 1.40 each and paid an additional $ 27 per box for shipping. He planned to keep enough masks for his staff and sell or donate the rest, but the local hospital wanted them all, so he ordered more. This time they cost $ 2.50 each and shipping is $ 585 per box. He didn’t get it until two months later.

“The boxes looked like they were in a price war and ‘FDA’ was misspelled,” said Dr. Conner. “It gave me little confidence that I would give my co-workers and the community any protection.”

He assumed he had to do something with an unreliable supply of masks, but he didn’t know what. He spoke to a neighbor and friends, including a civil engineer and a medical radiologist, and they asked: Why not make N95 masks yourself?

Dr. Rob Conner and his business partners invested in making N95 masks after they were not satisfied with the KN95 masks he ordered at the start of the pandemic. “We wanted to make a mask that would protect our community, that was our big deal. We just want to guarantee people’s safety, ”said Dr. Conner. He says people generally wear the wrong type of mask. You need one that seals the face and filters out more than 95% of the particles. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Conner)

Start from the beginning

Of course, ordering a mask-making machine from China had inherent difficulties during a global pandemic, especially given the political turmoil between the US and China at the time.

One of the hurdles was the language barrier. He teamed up with the owner of a local Chinese restaurant to translate for him while speaking to an engineer in China. He asked the engineer to build and ship a machine to make the masks.

Another obstacle was the erosion of prices. When Dr. Conner ordered the machine for the first time, it was due to arrive at the end of March. But then he found out that the price had increased by $ 100,000 and refused the delivery.

“Even though I had a signed contract, the price would often be twice that,” he said, due to competition from people in Saudi Arabia or Europe who would offer more money. “It was demoralizing every time it failed.”

Four machines later, Dr. Conner and his business partners finally got one last October. It came in 12 huge boxes.

“When it arrived we stared at the parts like, ‘What did we do? ‘There have been several times when I’ve been way out of my comfort zone. “

In addition to figuring out the differences between Chinese and US electrical systems, they also had to figure out how to assemble the machine and how to start it. After talking to engineers in China and furiously searching the internet, they left the machine on in early November. 4,000 masks can be produced per hour. They hired eight community members who had lost their jobs running the machine as well as packing and shipping the masks. They founded The Masketeers LLC and set up a website at AmericaN95 Masks.

“If we can sell quality masks and turn them into good business, we are determined to do it,” said Dr. Conner, but as he discovered during this process, it’s not that simple.

In a catch-22 situation, Dr. Conner said he shouldn’t market to the public because government officials were hoping to reserve supplies for frontline workers and healthcare workers. But experts are increasingly saying that better face coverings are needed to contain more transmissible strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, during the vaccine’s rollout.

He says the right mask needs to be wearable, comfortable, breathable, and seal against your face. It should also block 95% or more of the particles.

For their masks, Dr. Conner and his partners identified several US-based companies that made filter media for the outer layer less than 0.3 micrometers thick. In addition, the masks have an inner layer of hydrophilic material that wicks moisture away from your face.

“I see all these public figures wearing the wrong mask. Then I read on the national news that they don’t want everyone to wear N95 masks in order for them to be available for first responders, but I think for the general public we need to make the right masks for protection. “Dr. Said Conner.

He is encouraged by President Joe Biden’s Executive Order in late January urging the federal government to buy more American-made goods, but Dr. Conner also knows this likely means buying from companies much larger than his.

“People pat us on the back, but to the federal or state government, nobody seems to know or care that we exist. Unfortunately, the best we do is local and nationwide, “even though they have sold to buyers as far as Australia and Germany.

He has received numerous calls from people wanting to buy masks at near cost in order to raise prices and sell them to the public.

“They are profiteers,” he said. “This is not a good time to be an opportunist, it is a good time to be a good person.

“We’re just a bunch of misfits trying to help the world and figure out the bureaucracy.”

Some of Dr.  Conner's masked staff with patientsDr. Conner runs two veterinary clinics with a total of 40 employees, some of which are shown here wearing his company’s masks.

Back in the office

In the meantime, Dr. Conner operates two clinics with a total of 40 employees, including seven associated veterinarians. None of the vets did a positive SARS-CoV-2 test. He said he was full the entire time, with no major absences, because he insisted from the start that staff wear the correct N95 masks.

The first positive case of his clinic among the staff came in May. The local health department informed Dr. Conner initially informed that everyone was exposed and that the clinic would have to be closed. But when he told them about the use of the N95 mask and other precautions his clinic had taken, he said, “They told me I do more than the local hospital and we could stay open,” said Dr. Conner.

The clinics partially opened their lobbies in November when it was getting colder. However, they continue to observe social distancing and limit the number of customers who can come in after each patient, sanitize and all use hand sanitizer and wear an N95 mask.

“Was tired. There’s a lot of fatigue that comes with it. And uncertainty. One vet’s grandfather is in the hospital and probably won’t make it. Another technician has a grandparent who is sick in a nursing home. Both are COVID-related. Our kennel manager has just come back from a 14-day quarantine because she and her husband had the coronavirus. She said it was terrible how sick she was. We were all worried about her. “She had discovered the virus during a home social event.

During the pandemic, Dr. Conner took his employees on a kayak trip and even rented a theater where anyone can watch a movie – with social distancing, of course.

“If you get into any other high pressure environment like this, forget that these are your friends and fellow soldiers in the foxhole. … We try to find creative ways to enjoy each other’s company outside of work.

“Oddly enough, we grew during the pandemic. We had to push customers out of the lobby, but even then we grew because customers knew we would take care of them.

“We’re in the south and some people came in and said they weren’t wearing a mask. One thing I told them was that the virus is not political. It doesn’t matter how you feel about a party. It’s a virus and all it does is find a host. “