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HomTex switches to making face masks in Alabama

Brandon Moseley

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Due to the coronavirus crisis, HomTex Inc., a Cullman based manufacturer of bed liners and other items, has shifted its focus to making cotton face masks for businesses and individuals.

The family owned company also plans a major investment at its facilities in Cullman County to manufacture the pleated, 3-ply surgical masks used in hospitals and nursing homes.

Jeremy Wootten is the President and Chief financial officer of HomTex.

Wootten said that the company is using its connections with Asian manufacturers to acquire fully automatic, advanced surgical face mask production equipment.

The $5 million project will create 120 jobs in Cullman and position HomTex as a permanent U.S. producer of personal protective equipment, or PPE, at a time when domestic production of the gear is seen as a national security priority.

HomTex has already turned out one million cotton face masks since the coronavirus crisis began last month.

“This equipment will make us one of the largest domestic manufacturers of this product, and it will all done right here in Cullman,” Wootten said. “We are going to make hundreds of millions of these surgical masks. The production capacity will be about 350 million of these annually.”

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The company secured a $1.5 million loan from the Cullman County Economic Development Agency to cover the down payment on the equipment. It has worked with Alabama Department of Commerce and others on incentives to accelerate the project.

“Our goal is to start operations in June and be at full production in July,” Wootten said.

Alabama Secretary of Commerce Greg Canfield said that HomTex has the capability to become a key U.S. production source for disposable surgical masks needed by health care workers across the nation today and in the future.

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“The coronavirus pandemic has clearly demonstrated that our country needs a dependable domestic production pipeline for PPE, and the Alabama operation of HomTex can be an important player in filling a portion of that critical need,” Secretary Canfield said. “In fact, we would be like to see Alabama become a U.S. hub for the production of these materials.”

Economic developer Dr. Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “HomTex is a fine example of an Alabama company retooling to meet a critical PPE need during an unprecedented time in United States history. The washable, reusable masks are reasonably priced, environmentally friendly, and manufactured by a family-owned business, qualities that make us proud to say, ‘Made in Alabama.’”

Many Alabama companies have pivoted to temporarily produce protective gear during the crisis, but HomTex is one of the first firms in the state to make plans for a major capital investment to establish PPE production, he said.

China is the largest exporter of PPE in the world. The coronavirus strain that causes COVID-19 was first identified in Wuhan City, Hubei Province, China in November 2019. Once the Chinese government accepted that they had a real problem, they grasped that PPE would be essential in stopping the spread of the virus and containing the crisis to Hubei Province. The largest exporter of PPE suddenly began importing global stockpiles of PPE, much of it originally manufactured in China. When the virus first became a problem in the U.S., doctors office and hospitals had difficulty obtaining the PPE supplies they order routinely because those warehouses were empty and Chinese manufacturers were still manufacturing for their domestic needs.

“At the beginning of March, it began apparent that we had a shortage of PPE in this country,” Wootten said. “We were having calls from people having all sorts of needs. We looked at what we could do to support that. We’re in a unique position because as a large domestic sheeting manufacturer, we had a large stock of cotton fabrics. Face masks seemed to be a major need.”

In March the Alabama Department of Commerce embraced the recruitment of personal protective gear producers as a new strategic priority. Secretary Canfield and his team have been personally engaged in the effort.

The HomTex team is led by the company’s head engineer who has experience with the once vibrant apparel industry. They produced a face mask design in a just a few days. After some testing, a mask bearing the company’s DreamFit brand went into full production in late March.

Demand has been across the board. Commerce asked for 1,000 masks for its staff and the employees of AIDT, the state’s primary workforce development agency. Local officials have purchased DreamFit masks. Three Alabama election committees acquired masks for use during primary elections in July.

“The majority of the business is going to private industry like utilities, manufacturing operations, and companies that are anticipating opening back up need the product so they can re-open,” Wootten said. “We’ve also serviced thousands and thousands of individual orders placed on our web site. We’ve shipped as far as Washington state.”

Wootten said that 75 percent of HomTex’s production has been shifted to the cotton face masks as retail orders for its bed linens and other products have dried up amid the coronavirus forced economic shutdown.

HomTex was founded by Wootten’s father, Jerry, who is still active in the business. The Alabama owned company operates five production facilities and has offices in China and India. The company has 300 employees, including 136 in Cullman County.

Expanding into PPE production means a major growth spurt for the company’s Cullman operation, Wootten said.

The project has the support of the state’s Legislative leadership.

State Senator Garlan Gudger (R-Cullman) said, “This will almost double our employment here in Cullman, and these are good-paying jobs. We’re running state-of-the-art, highly technical equipment. Based on the investment, this is not a one-time thing for use. This PPE business is a new venture for us.”

Demand for PPE is likely not going away. The winter of 2017/2018 saw over 60,000 Americans die from the flu, which is spread similarly to the coronavirus. That was the worst flue season of the last forty years. The CDC estimates that 48,000 Americans died in the 2019/2020 flu season and this year’s flu vaccine was the least effective version in years. This has been followed by the Wuhan coronavirus plague. Any hope that this would be easily contained has been dashed. As of press time, 1,035,454 Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19. 59,266 have already died with 2,470 Americans dying of COVID-19 on Tuesday alone. 142,162 Americans have recovered from their illness; but 834,261 Americans are still fighting COVID-19 and there is an unknown hundreds of thousands out there spreading the virus without feeling any symptoms. Leaving our homes, going to Church, and doing our work while wearing a face mask is likely to be the new normal for America.

“It will be long term, and we’re excited that we will be able to make it right here in Alabama.”
Wootten said. One legacy of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a better understanding of the strategic importance of the U.S. textile industry and its production capabilities.

HomTex also manufactures: sleeping pillows, mattress pads, protectors and toppers, top-of-bed collections, throws, blankets, decorative pillows, and towels.

“If anything good can come from this situation, it’s that the country begins to realize that our domestic textile industry has just about vanished, and that has caused a strategic disadvantage in our supply of PPE,” Wooten said.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Economy

Alabama Innovation Fund, Auburn support development of saliva COVID testing device

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Commerce and the City of Auburn’s Industrial Development Board have teamed to award $250,000 in funding to accelerate the development of OraSecure LLC’s breakthrough patent-pending saliva collection device intended to help in the ongoing battle against the novel coronavirus.

Support from the Alabama Innovation Fund and the City of Auburn will help OraSecure finalize the initial manufacturing run needed to begin mass producing its devices and complete validation with the FDA. Production of the devices will take place in Auburn.

“The Alabama Innovation Fund is a key component in our efforts to spark the creation of high-impact ’Made in Alabama’ products by stimulating breakthrough research,” said Greg Canfield, secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce. “With this support, we are helping OraSecure speed the development of a specimen collection device that can make a difference in the pandemic response while simultaneously raising the state’s profile in the bioscience industry.”

For more information, see the attachment or click this link: https://www.madeinalabama.com/2020/07/orasecure_saliva_collection_device/

 

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Economy

New unemployment claims held steady in June, state says

Micah Danney

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The number of Alabamians filing for unemployment insurance held more or less steady over the course of June, with 18,340 new claims added during the last week of the month, according to the Alabama Department of Labor.

There were 19,950 new claims in the first week of June and 18,367 in the second week, then a slight jump to 18,671 in the third week. 

The month’s total of 75,328 new claims comes after Gov. Kay Ivey relaxed some restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 and allowed more businesses to open. The numbers vary by industry and county, but generally represent some stabilization, according to department spokesperson Tara Hutchison.

“They remain significantly down from a high in excess of 100,000 in April, which is good news. I don’t know if we can really expect anything one way or another in this unprecedented situation, but the decline from early in the pandemic is of course welcome news,” Hutchison said.

About 60 percent of last week’s new claims were attributed to COVID-19. 

The state’s unemployment rate dropped from 13.8 percent in April to 9.9 percent in May. That compares to a rate of 3 percent in May 2019.

Jefferson County had the highest share of new claims last week at 2,626, followed by Mobile and Montgomery counties at 1,900 and 1,400, respectively.

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The worst-hit industries that are categorized were administrative and support services, food service and bars, transportation equipment manufacturing, general merchandise stores, nursing and residential care facilities and educational services. 

As of May, counties with the lowest unemployment rates are Clay County at 5.6 percent, Geneva County at 6.3 percent and Shelby County at 6.5 percent. 

Counties with the highest unemployment rates are Wilcox County at 19.3 percent, Lowndes County at 18.3 percent and Greene County at 16.4 percent.

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Major cities with the lowest unemployment rates are Vestavia Hills at 5.2 percent, Homewood at 5.4 percent and Madison at 6.2 percent.  

Major cities with the highest unemployment rates are Prichard at 18.6 percent, Selma at 17.1 percent and Gadsden at 15.7 percent.

Wage and salary employment increased in May by 42,500, according to the department.

Average weekly earnings increased to a record high in May, rising to $905.25 per week, representing an increase of $66.43 over the year.

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Secretaries of State share joint statement on importance of USMCA launch

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Following the completion of the necessary measures to comply with commitments under the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), the Agreement officially enters into force today, July 1, 2020.

As Secretaries of State who oversee the business filings process in the respective states of Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio, Texas, and Wyoming, Secretaries John H. Merrill (Alabama), Paul D. Pate (Iowa), Michael G. Adams (Kentucky), Kyle Ardoin (Louisiana), Michael Watson (Mississippi), John R. Ashcroft (Missouri), Bob Evnen (Nebraska), Frank LaRose (Ohio), Ruth Hughs (Texas), and Edward A. Buchanan (Wyoming) recognize and appreciate firsthand the positive impact the USMCA will have on entrepreneurs across the country.

“Alabama’s international engagement fuels job growth and increases exports. The success of Alabama businesses depends on the participation and competitiveness of our global counterparts. Alabama totaled $6.6 billion in exports to Canada and Mexico in 2018, supporting families and businesses across the state” noted Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill. “I was delighted to join President Donald J. Trump in January of this year as he signed this mutually beneficial agreement, and I look forward to its future success.”

“The USMCA is a great opportunity for Iowa’s farmers, businesses and families. The launch of this agreement comes at a vital time for our country and will provide a much needed boost to our economy. Canada and Mexico bought $6.5 billion worth of goods from Iowa in 2018 and this deal ensures our partnerships with these neighbors will continue,” stated Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate.

“The USMCA entering into force is a great deal and a win for American and Louisiana workers. The USMCA will help support and grow our economy, boost small businesses, help our farmers, manufacturers, and workers, and ensure more Louisiana-made products can be sent internationally. Trade is important to Louisiana’s economy and this deal will help boost both,” stated Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.

“During a time when the future of our economy seems nebulous, the USCMA creates a portal for modern opportunities and prosperous partnerships,” said Mississippi Secretary of State Michael Watson. “The enhanced agreement will undoubtedly revive businesses and help boost innovation in our state. I applaud President Trump’s leadership and dedication to ensuring a fair playing field for Mississippi farmers, ranchers, and entrepreneurs.”

“Missouri is grateful for this historic agreement, which will help Missouri agriculture and businesses grow with more jobs and increasing exports.  As our economy recovers, getting businesses and people back to work, this will help ensure success for large and small businesses who compete and form partnerships with our neighbors.  We stand ready to assist our entrepreneurs and businesses,” replied Missouri Secretary of State John R. Ashcroft.

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Nebraska Secretary of State Bob Evnen noted, “The USMCA provides expanded opportunities for Nebraska’s livestock industry, and our ag commodity and specialty crop producers. The USMCA builds on the successes and corrects the problems of NAFTA, and gives us expanded opportunities for Nebraska’s ag trade with our friends in Mexico and Canada. This excellent agreement now serves as a template for other international free trade agreements, so we have cause for optimism on many fronts.”

“Today is a day Ohio’s farmers and entrepreneurs have been waiting for,” said Ohio Secretary of State Frank LaRose. “As our nation’s economy continues to recover, the USMCA is a much needed boost as they compete on the global stage. Thanks to the leadership of President Trump, Senator Portman and bipartisan leaders from across our nation, Ohio is poised for our next giant leap, and my office looks forward to helping make it happen.”

“Last year alone, trade between Texas and its two largest trade partners—Mexico and Canada—totaled more than $200 billion. This exchange supports the more than 950,000 Texas jobs that are tied directly to trade with Mexico and Canada,” said Texas Secretary of State Ruth Hughs. “The implementation of the USMCA provides tremendous benefit to all parties involved in the trade deal and will help to ensure years of mutual economic benefit and prosperity for all. We look forward to further strengthening our relationship with our trade partners as we enter a new era of innovation and success.”

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“The USMCA trade deal has high standards and rebalances North American trade to provide a stronger market for Wyoming’s and our Nation’s goods. This is a great day for our country, as businesses will better be able to participate in cross-border trade. USMCA ensures fair business practices by our neighbors and now the advantage will be back in the hands of the American worker,” stated Wyoming Secretary of State Edward Buchanan.

This historic trade agreement will result in freer markets, fairer trade, and strong economic growth across North America, creating new opportunities for American workers, farmers, ranchers, and business owners.

 

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Ivey announces SiO2’s $163 million expansion in Auburn

Brandon Moseley

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Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced Wednesday that SiO2 Materials Science plans to invest $163 million in an expansion at its Auburn facility.

The announcement came just after securing a major contract to supply the federal government with vials to support the COVID-19 vaccine effort if and when an effective vaccine is developed. The project will create 220 jobs.

“It is exciting to know that SiO2 will be directly involved in providing a product essential to addressing the COVID-19 crisis, which will impact not only Alabamians but the entire country,” Ivey said. “This is a testament to the ingenuity of this great company and its growing Alabama workforce.”

Economic developer Nicole Jones told the Alabama Political Reporter, “Vials produced by SiO2 Materials Science may be the critical component needed to ensure safety in the vaccine distribution process. The breakthrough technology developed by the Auburn-based company provides a glimmer of hope amidst challenging times and showcases how Alabamians are working diligently to craft solutions that will assist our nation and the world in the fight against COVID-19. In addition, the 220 new, high-skilled jobs housed in Auburn Technology Park West will bring economic benefits to Lee County as well as the entire state of Alabama.”

The expansion will allow SiO2 to increase its production capacity so that it can meet the expected demand for vials and syringes when a coronavirus vaccine is finally approved for mass use.

In June, SiO2 announced an $143 million contract with federal government agencies for a production scale-up of the company’s state-of-the-art packaging platform for storing novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) vaccines and therapeutics.

Bobby Abrams is the CEO of SiO2.

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“The pandemic presents an enormous challenge for all people,” Abrams said. “We are extremely grateful for Senator Shelby’s steadfast support and assistance, and we’re honored to collaborate with our government so a COVID-19 vaccine can be safely and quickly distributed. The State of Alabama and the City of Auburn for many years have been very supportive of SiO2 Materials Science during its research, development, commercialization, and now scale-up phases of the company.”

Over the last 10 years, SiO2 has developed its patented vial platform, which combines a plastic container with a microscopic, pure glass coating on the inside that is ideal for biological drugs and vaccines. The product, developed in Auburn with help from experts from four major U.S. research institutions, combines the benefits of both glass and plastic without drawbacks.

“There are problems with plastic, and there are problems with glass, and we resolve all of them,” Abrams said.

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SiO2 will expand its existing facility at 2250 Riley Street and will invest in a new molding facility at 2425 Innovation Drive, both located in the Auburn Technology Park West.

Construction is already under way to expand the facility on Innovation Drive. The completed approximately 70,000-square-foot facility will increase the production capacity of SiO2’s injection molding operation.

“We’re proud to have some of the world’s leading scientists and product developers working in our community,” Auburn Mayor Ron Anders said. “With the presence of these companies and Auburn University’s outstanding medical and engineering programs, we believe we’ll see significant growth in the biotech industry right here in Auburn. On top of that, the well-paying jobs created through this project will result in significant economic opportunities for our local businesses.”

Greg Canfield, the secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce, said that SiO2’s expansion project in Auburn will help ensure that the nation’s health authorities have an ample supply of vials and syringes to administer a vaccine for COVID-19 as soon as it is developed.

“Having a steady supply of SiO2’s innovative vials will represent a key strategic advantage for federal agencies wanting to act rapidly once a vaccine is available to counter the coronavirus,” Canfield said.

Robert S. Langer is a professor at the David H. Koch Institute at MIT and a company adviser.

A key element of SiO2’s product is enhanced safety for healthcare providers and for patients, who are at a lower risk of adverse side effects. A combination of plastic and a microscopic layer of glass also means vials and syringes won’t break, shatter or crack. SiO2 ships its products worldwide.

“Many drug development and drug formulation innovations can be limited due to variables associated with traditional glass vials and syringes,” Langer said. “The SiO2 vials and syringes eliminate these variables and allow drug development partners to bring their innovations to life.”

SiO2 is a privately-owned company based in Auburn, where it has around 200 employees. The Retirement Systems of Alabama provided early financial support for the company.

517,464 people have already died from the COVID-19 global pandemic, including 130,602 Americans.

 

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