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Border manufacturers increase focus on medical devices during pandemic

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Border manufacturers are teaming up in an unusual race to provide life-saving medical supplies and devices during the COVID-19 crisis. The timing couldn’t be more critical.

“Our message is simple,” said Cecilia Levine, founder of the non-profit US Mexico Canada Strategic Alliance, “We are one North American region. We are part of the solution to a problem that has turned our world upside down.”

The framework to collaborate is already in place. The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez region is home to 32 companies making medical devices, 50 suppliers and a workforce of about 40,000 people. 

“We had no idea that the efforts that we’d be engaging in would be so critical to the crisis we’re experiencing right now,” said Emma Schwartz, president of the Medical Center of the America Foundation. 

The nonprofit organization based in El Paso fosters collaboration and innovation among the thriving cluster of medical manufacturers and suppliers on both sides of the border.  And the binational effort has become a bright spot during the pandemic.

Adding to the urgency, some of those who have tested positive for COVID-19 and died worked in maquiladoras, according to multiple media reports. 

The MCA Foundation also has a start-up incubator to spur innovation that is now key in the cross border effort to respond to COVID-19.  “We found innovators from all over the region and really all over the country and Mexico coming together, seeing how they could support each other to produce new innovations during the crisis,” Schwartz said. 

Developing affordable ventilators

Innovations include manufacturing personal protective equipment and ventilators desperately needed by hospitals in both the U.S. and Mexico. Levine said several teams of manufacturers along the border are collaborating to build a new ventilator.

“We’re working with a group in Ciudad Juárez, Monterrey, Sonora and Tijuana,” she said. “We all formed a group with the advice of some researchers from MIT, some researchers from India to try to create a ventilator that can also be very affordable and easy to put together.”

On the border, companies collaborating to build the new ventilator include Flutec, an international HVAC design and build company,  and Mechatronics, which specializes in “medical equipment assembly, design and testing” through robotics and artificial intelligence according to the companies’ websites. Both have operations in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.

Expertise is being shared across borders and continents. In India, tech executive and innovator Raghu Gullapalli, and Dr.Vineet Joshi, a top hospital lung specialist, are providing technical expertise based on their research. The team has expanded to include a group of innovators and researchers from Peru headed by business executives and start-up supporter Martin Ferraro.

The ventilator is in the testing phase now. The next step is to get it certified by the Mexican government agency COFEPRIS, which announced guidelines to fast-track approval of new ventilators during the pandemic. 

The hope is to supply the affordable ventilators to hospitals in Mexico and the United States “in a couple of weeks,” according to Levine.

Mexico announced Monday that it has confirmed more than 5,000 positive COVID-19 cases and 332 deaths, with at least 14 deaths in Ciudad Juárez. President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador recently asked President Trump for as many as 10,000 ventilators from the United States. 

The United States has more than 585,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and more than 24,000 dead. 

It’s not clear when Mexico, which is already scrambling to get facemasks and other medical devices from China, will receive ventilators from the United States. 

Border is medical manufacturing hub

The El Paso-Ciudad Juárez binational region of more than 2.4 million people is key in manufacturing essential medical supplies and devices in the fight against the pandemic that’s ravaged the world. 

MFI International in Ciudad Juárez has shifted operations from making bedding and home furnishings to medical supplies, including protective hospital bed mattress covers and body bags needed in some COVID-19 hotspots. (Photo courtesy of Lance Levine)

About half of the assembly plants or maquiladoras in Ciudad Juárez employing an estimated 250,000 people have been forced to shut down to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and risk infecting employees.  

Medical manufacturers see a critical need to continue operating . But other companies are also contributing their skills and expertise during the pandemic.  Some companies are repurposing assembly lines and materials, including auto parts, during the pandemic.

“The good thing is that in Ciudad Juárez and many parts of Mexico we have a lot of incredible engineers and designers that are now with this coronavirus being showcased with coming up with excellent ideas,”  Levine said.

“People are looking at converting automotive operations into medical devices,” Schwartz added. “For example, there are a lot of covers that are made for the seats inside automobiles. Those operations could be converted to making isolation gowns, for example.”

Levine’s company has also shifted production. She’s director of MFI International, which has operations in El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. The company usually makes bedding and other home furnishing but is now mass-producing washable face masks for essential workers, protective hospital bed mattress covers, and another product in demand in COVID-19 hotspots 

“Unfortunately, we’re also making body bags,” she said. 

It’s a grim reminder of the pandemic’s rising death toll and the vital mission of border manufacturers working to make life-saving equipment and protective gear.

Cover photo: Workers at MFI International in Ciudad Juárez have shifted to making hospital supplies rather than bedding and home furnishings. The workers in this photo, taken in February, were spaced out to practice physical distancing. This was before the recommendation to use face coverings was in effect yet. (Photo courtesy of Lance Levine)

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Angela Kocherga

Angela Kocherga is multimedia editor for El Paso Matters. She has dedicated her career as a journalist to reporting stories on both sides of the border for readers, viewers and public radio listeners. She previously served as Mexico City and Border Bureau Chief for a group of television stations. She also serves as news director at public radio KTEP. You can listen to stories by her on air at 88.5 FM and online at KTEP.org.

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