Kathy Wells McNeil only had to watch the international news over the winter months to realize she did not want to get caught flatfooted when the fast-spreading COVID-19 virus reached Sudbury.
Two months ago, the owner and CEO of Total Nursing Care placed a call to have a local glass installer attach a large plexiglass screen to the reception counter of her occupational testing clinic on Regent Street.
“We got a jumpstart on most people in town because we had all our PPE (personal protective equipment) ordered, sanitizer, masks, gowns and gloves provided to all of our staff. Kind of the last thing we did was put the plexiglass in.”
Wells McNeil’s company provides home health-care services, but also operates an occupational testing facility, performing medicals, drug and alcohol testing, pulmonary tests and electrocardiograms for mining companies and the railways.
With the aim of keeping her staff safe, Wells McNeil, a registered nurse, performed a risk assessment of the most heavily trafficked and high-touch areas of her clinic, including the front desk.
“Having that barrier there, our office staff doesn’t have to be gloved, gowned and masked all day. They can work in that area and feel comfortable.”
The pandemic crisis has brought out the ingenuity and flexibility of Canadian industry and large and small businesses in pivoting their production and manufacturing capabilities to meet the needs of front-line workers in health care, emergency response, retail and other essential services.
Makers and installers of glass and plastic safety barriers have been particularly busy. Health-care providers are certainly top of mind for Gerry Rainville, president of Cosmos Glass in Sudbury.
Normally at this time of year, before the construction season starts, staff in his nine-employee shop in Sudbury’s north end would be off on vacation.
“We’re a seasonal business. From January to March, April, there’s really not much to do.”
That's all changed since mid-March when the outbreak took hold, non-essential business and activity was locked down, and the calls started coming in for protective screens.
“We’ve been quite busy, going from the thought of possibly laying people off to almost needing an extra set of hands,” said Rainville.
“We’re pretty much full bore.”
Whenever he fields a call from Health Sciences North, “that’s my priority,” said Rainville.
He estimates he’s provided 30 to 40 custom-ordered barriers for the hospital, but also for pharmacies, doctor’s offices, grocery store chains, and various office spaces.
Dating back to the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009, Rainville estimates he’s built 90 per cent of the protective barriers for the hospital’s aluminum-framed nursing stations and reception desks.
But they’ve also been heating and molding plexiglass for counters and tabletop screening stations.
“We’re able to turn them around fairly quickly,” said Rainville. “Some of the desks have higher raised platforms so everything is custom designed and installed for those ones.”
Some customers prefer a basic shield, hanging down from the ceiling on chains, while others want more complex configurations between work stations.
He’s also sold plastic sheets to retailers like Canadian Tire and Costco, which have installed their own protective barriers for cashiers.
For customers, Rainville will sometimes personally go out to do measurements for an installation, or people can give their dimensions over the phone and he'll leave the fabricated product outside for curbside pickup.
While he’s experienced no problems sourcing plastic from his southern Ontario supplier, there has been issues ordered the round disc-like ‘speak-throughs.’
With only one supplier in Canada, there’s a backlog on orders well into May. Rainville rectified that by approaching a local metal fabricator who laser cut about 50 replicas in a couple of days. “That’s where I’ve been buying them.”
Hospital installations are also a big part of Michael Valenti’s business, Northland Glass & Metal in North Bay.
Before COVID-19 hit, installing glass and plexiglass screens amounted to about five per cent of his business – “almost nothing,” he said.
For North Bay Regional Health Centre, the company has been making and installing protective glass for individual nursing stations and more extensive floor-to-ceiling glass barriers in excess of 15 metres long, as the hospital has been reconfiguring its emergency room space.
“We’ve been in the hospital every few days putting in different screens and changing pathways for doors so people can’t just walk down a hall,” said Valenti.
As president of three companies engaged in roofing, siding, and exterior building work, he’s managed to keep 90 per cent of his employees busy on essential service sites with a slate of Ontario Provincial Police detachment work and for the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission.
On the glass and metal fabricating side, his 22 employees have been active both in the shop and in the field, cutting and installing plastic screens for themselves and other contractors.
“We used to sit on a skid of 25 (sheets of plastic) for two months and we’re going through 50 sheets a week,” he said.
Valenti suspects protective screens could develop into a new business line in the years ahead.
“I think it’s going to change the way people work and the way they operate.
“The clients that we work for have been taking the long-term approach. It’s not something they’ve just thrown up to get by; it’s some thought-out planning to prepare for now and in the future.”
That’s something Wells-McNeil has strongly considered.
“The plexiglass is not going anywhere. It’s the new norm now, for sure,” she said, as part of their in-house health and safety procedures to manage client flow in the office and wearing personal protective equipment for pulmonary tests.
Wells-McNeil views this time as a teaching moment for businesses to be more mindful of infections, diseases and other viruses and being more proactive in preventing their spread.
“I’m hoping we can get to one day, a year from now, to where we can shake hands again, where the scare is not there anymore. But I do feel that some of these changes are definitely going to be permanent, and I think they’re going to be good changes.”