BATH — Production and delivery of machines at Bath Iron Works designed to make nasal swabs used for coronavirus testing won’t be affected by an ongoing strike.

BIW is manufacturing 30 of the specialized machines in order to help Guilford-based Puritan Medical Group boost its production of swabs from 20 million per month to 40 million. There is a nationwide shortage of COVID-19 tests, and companies have been trying to catch up to ensure widespread testing is available to help combat the spread of the disease, which is caused by coronavirus.

“We appreciate the hard work of the team that has been assembling these machines on a tight time frame and their ability to complete this first order ahead of schedule is impressive,” said BIW spokesman David Hench. “Recognizing how essential COVID-19 testing is to keeping people safe and fully re-opening the economy, BIW does not anticipate the current work stoppage will affect delivery of the machinery to Puritan so that the healthcare products company can fulfill its vital mission.”

Striking shipbuilders picket outside an entrance to Bath Iron Works, Monday, June 22, 2020, in Bath, Maine. The vast majority of picketers did not wear pandemic facemasks. AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty

After Local S6 union members began striking for fair wages and policies at 12:01 a.m. Monday morning, removing 4,300 machinists from the shipyard’s total workforce of 6,700, the company announced it “activated its business continuity plan.”

“In the near-term, this includes continued shipyard production with salaried personnel and others reporting to work,” BIW spokesman David Hench wrote Monday. “The company and the union have not discussed returning to the bargaining table, and there currently is no timeframe for doing so.”

An overwhelming 87% of union members voted to launch its first strike in 20 years after contract negotiations faltered. The company proposed a 3-year contract including annual 3 percent pay increases and increases to health plan co-pays, but union members condemned the shipyard’s demand to continue hiring subcontractors and change seniority.

There have been more than 2.27 million reported cases of COVID-19 and nearly 120,000 deaths as a result of the virus as of June 22, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Due to the immediate need for the machines, BIW said it turned to 17 other Maine businesses for help providing materials or making specialized parts for the machines.

BIW delivered the first 22 machines to Puritan on Monday and plans to complete and deliver the remaining eight machines by mid-July.

“BIW is pleased to complete the first delivery of these machines which will enable Puritan to expand the important work it is doing to help respond to this pandemic,” BIW President Dirk Lesko said last week. “Our employees’ skill, combined with a well-developed supply chain, enable us to meet this critical need on an unusually short timetable.”

The company builds the industrial machines, designed by Puritan, “using its machine shop, outfit fabrication facilities, and experienced workforce,” in Bath and Brunswick, according to a company statement.

According to Puritan’s website, the Maine company is one of only two in the world, alongside Copan Diagnostics of northern Italy, manufacturing the swabs needed for coronavirus testing.
To test someone for coronavirus, a long, thin nasopharyngeal swab is inserted through the nose to reach the nasopharynx, a cavity in the upper part of the throat behind the nose, to collect a specimen.

“Unlike an ordinary cotton swab, it’s actually a highly sophisticated diagnostic tool,” the medical supplies company states on its website. “In fact, it’s regulated, patented and specialized. This also means these swabs aren’t easy to manufacture on the fly.”

The nasal swabs must be long and thin enough to reach behind the nose, and the handle must also be flexible so it can curve to reach the nasopharynx with minimal discomfort. The swabs also can’t be made with cotton or wood, like a typical drugstore swab, because the wrong material can affect the test result, according to Puritan.

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