By Mackenzi Klemann –

KAM Manufacturing, maker of the Stephanie Dawn handbag line in Van Wert, has found a new market for its cut-and-sew products amid the call for U.S.-made personal protective gear.

Mackenzi Klemann | The Lima News

VAN WERT — Companies rushed to make isolation gowns, hand sanitizer and N95 respirators amid the nation-wide shortage of personal protective equipment in March and April, only to find a market flush with reusable cloth face masks while shortages for essential medical gear like N95s persist seven months into the pandemic.

Some of those companies are now scaling back their PPE production, while others have found a new niche and are hopeful the demand for U.S.-made protective gear can revive industries that have long struggled to compete with outsourced labor and foreign products.

“It’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic for the sewing business to see this demand,” said Ollie Adams, owner of KAM Manufacturing, a textile manufacturer in Van Wert that has made about 100,000 consumer and medical-grade face masks and some 90,000 isolation gowns since the start of the pandemic.

Adams estimated that 60% of KAM’s sales are now PPE-related, including a line of personal-use masks sold through the company’s Stephanie Dawn handbag site, where the company also advertises its N95 respirators and isolation gowns for medical clients.

KAM has since nearly doubled the size of its staff and expects to continue to continue growing through 2020, as demand for its handbags and regular products returns to normal.

“I hope after this is all said and done,” Adams said, “that our elected officials, hospitals and the medical field push to try to keep PPE here in the U.S. instead of continuing to go offshore to get their PPE manufacturing, because that’s what caused the shortage.”

World Class Plastics had less luck. The company, which makes injection mold products for automotive companies out of Russells Point, unveiled a line of rubber N92 respirators, face shields and hands-free door openers last spring.

David Wisniewski, vice president of engineering and research and development, said during a visit from U.S. Sen. Rob Portman in August that the company had sold about 15,000 face shields and about several dozen face masks and PPE accessories.

“We didn’t get our tool finished before (N95s) became generally available again,” Wisniewski told The Lima News after the tour.

By that time, Wisniewski said, most consumers were looking for the more light-weight cloth masks, so World Class Plastics rolled out a line of customizable cloth masks.

HeartLight Pharmacy Services, which sells radioactive tracers for diagnostic tests to hospitals and cardiac clinics in Ohio, had a similar experience when the Lima company started making hand sanitizer while elective surgeries were postponed.

Eric Schaaf, owner of HeartLight, said bottles, alcohol and glycerin were hard to find at the time, and that the company lost money on those efforts. Now that the supply of hand sanitizer has stabilized, Schaaf has transitioned to making wipes instead.

“We didn’t get into it to make money,” he said. “We were just trying to stay busy.”

But there are still reported shortages of the most essential gear. A recent AP investigation, for example, found that a raw material needed to make N95 respirators is in short supply. And disinfectant wipes are still hard to find.

Melinda Bowden, founder and owner of PromoHits, a promotional products distributor in Bluffton, has started distributing alcohol wipes to fill that gap until wipes are more readily available. Bowden estimated that a can of popular disinfectant is now $16 to $19, distributor cost.

“And they won’t sell you one can,” she said. “They want to sell you thousands of cans. I don’t know anybody who wants to pay my cost for a can of Lysol.”