Months after cleanup work from the BP oil well disaster ended, Baton Rouge-based Convergence Equity LLC found itself with more than 3 million protective suits in inventory but little in the way of customer demand.
Then the Ebola outbreak struck.
“Convergence had immediate inventory … still sealed in boxes and ready to go,” said spokesman Rob Hartwell. “They also had 30, 40 years of experience in the medical supply industry and great contacts with all the major manufacturers, in addition to having their own manufacturing capacity.”
The media was filled with reports of shortages for Ebola-resistant gear, also referred to as personal protective equipment. Convergence owners Jay Simon, Gregory Overstreet and Johnny Carrigan started calling international relief organizations to find out what they could do to help.
The company quickly made a connection with TrillaMed LLC, which is owned by three former U.S. Army Airborne Rangers. The medical supply company is also certified as a service-disabled, veteran-owned small business and serves more than 700 federal facilities worldwide.
Convergence is supplying TrillaMed with 1,000 personal protective equipment kits, each containing up to 350 complete suits and gear. The details of the contract were not released.
The potential market is big, outstripping supply in some cases.
For example, the World Health Organization is buying about 500,000 sets of PPE a month. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently spent $2.7 million to buy 50 kits, each with enough gear to allow one hospital to treat a single Ebola patient for four to five days. The kits include 270 disposable boot covers, 230 single-use protective gowns, 700 gloves and 23 powered air-purifying respirators.
Medline, which sells 176 million fluid-resistant gowns a year, has reported demand is up almost 50 percent. Dupont has reported that PPE demand has outstripped its supply.
The demand from firefighters and other first responders, which some have described as overreaction, to hospitals and relief organizations has resulted in a national shortage of the gear, although there is little chance most hospitals or communities will ever see an Ebola patient.
“I’m not sure hospitals really know how many (suits) they should have on hand, but they’re all working toward having some on hand,” said Allyn Whaley-Martin, project manager for hospital preparedness at the Louisiana Hospital Association.
The kits can be very expensive, Whaley-Martin said. A powered, air-purified respirator, for example, costs $1,200.
Hartwell said Convergence’s leftover BP protective gear meets both CDC and World Health Organization standards for Ebola protection.
However, because of the different ways that the World Health Organization and the United Nations measure sizes, only 1.1 million of its suits are eligible for international use.
The WHO uses three sizes: small, medium and large, Hartwell said. Convergence has protective gear that goes all the way up to 7XL.
“Frankly, the demands of the Veterans Administration are different from the demands of the U.S. military, and they’re different from the demands of the World Health Organization,” Hartwell said.
Convergence, thanks to its relationships with medical supply manufacturers, is making sure it can meet those varying requirements, he said. The company’s manufacturing sites include Alabama, Mexico and Taiwan, and Convergence has gone into full production at those facilities.
The company already is shipping protective gear, and it has been approached by major nonprofits and relief organizations, Hartwell said. In addition to its inventory, the company also can manufacture gear to customer specifications.
“While it’s good for business, we’re all, of course, hoping there’s no pandemic that breaks out in the United States,” Hartwell said.
Everyone’s goal is to confine the disease to Africa and successfully treat patients there, Hartwell said.
“But as we’ve seen, a lot of our hospital systems … were not prepared, didn’t know how to use the equipment they had or didn’t have the proper equipment,” Hartwell said.
In Dallas, the hospital staff was using open-necked suits, he said. Lots of hospital systems didn’t have CDC- or WHO-rated equipment. Many U.S. health systems are looking to establish a minimum level of protection by picking up personal protective equipment kits.
“No other hospital wants to have the situation where health professionals are infected because of improper equipment or improper utilization of the equipment that they have,” Hartwell said.
Convergence plans to become a major player in medical supply equipment, technology and related expertise. In the short term, the company will supply Ebola-resistant equipment and gear.
It will take a year or so to snuff out the Ebola outbreak in Africa, he said. After that, it’s unclear what will take place in the medical supply business.
There are other developments in the works for Ebola and infectious diseases, such as vaccines that will protect people from similar outbreaks, Hartwell said. Convergence, with its expertise in health care procurement, will be ready and on hand for those developments.
And while Ebola and protective equipment is now a major emphasis for the company, Convergence expects its biggest line of business will be environmental remediation and energy technologies.
The company is developing technology that will eliminate the need to flare natural gas from wells, Hartwell said.
“Some of the technologies are going to be game changing. They’re going to change the world for the better,” Hartwell said.
Climate advocates say methane, the major component in natural gas, is the second-largest cause of global warming. Methane pollution also contributes to cancer- and smog-forming air pollutants.
Follow Ted Griggs on Twitter, @tedgriggsbr