BATH — Bath Iron Works, a shipyard and one of Maine’s largest employers, has partnered with Guildford-based Puritan Medical Group to help double the production of nasal swabs used for COVID-19 testing.

BIW is manufacturing 30 of the 40 specialized machines designed to boost Puritan’s production of swabs from 20 million per month to 40 million per month, according to a statement released by Sen. Susan Collins’ office on April 30. 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.

“While we remain focused on our critical mission of Navy shipbuilding,” said David Hench, BIW spokesman, “we embrace this opportunity to assist another Maine company in their goal of adding manufacturing capacity to make testing swabs more widely available to doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers across America as they work to keep all Americans safe and healthy.”

Due to the immediate need for the machines, BIW said it turned to more than 10 other Maine businesses to assist, either by providing materials or making specialized parts for the machines. Hench said BIW’s sister business, General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems in Saco, is helping by making “unique parts that are needed for these machines and are not available elsewhere, parts that need to be created quickly in order to support the rapid escalation in testing capacity for COVID-19.”

Puritan Medical in Guilford produces millions of swabs a week for coronavirus testing. The swabs are long enough to reach through the nasal cavity to the upper part of the throat. Photo courtesy of Scott Wellman

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. But, the swabs used for testing are not just longer versions of the average drugstore cotton swabs.

“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 easily 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 materials can interfere with the diagnosis, according to Puritan.

The medical supplies company was awarded $75.5 million through the Defense Production Act included in the CARES Act to increase the domestic production of medical supplies needed to combat COVID-19, according to Collins. That funding will be used to convert a 95,000 square foot warehouse, owned by Cianbro, a Pittsfield-based construction company, into a modern manufacturing facility. The company also plans to add 150 people to its current 500-person workforce to staff the new factory.

“This project is an extraordinary one that is going to make a real difference to the people of this country as we seek to ramp up the production of swabs, which is absolutely essential to coronavirus testing,” said Collins. “I am so proud of this collaborative effort involving Cianbro, Puritan, and Bath Iron Works, who are stepping up during this very difficult time in the history of our country, and I am even prouder of their employees. … The sooner we can expand testing, the sooner we can help reduce the spread of the virus and safely reopen our economy.”

This plan to double the production of the swabs comes two weeks after Puritan announced it was making over 1 million swabs per week after the company was “contacted by government officials several weeks ago about our ability to produce as many swabs for the country as we possibly can,” according to an April 20 blog post.

Efforts to reach Timothy Templet, Puritan’s executive vice president of global sales, were unsuccessful Monday.


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