Heather Florio received a letter at her office in Orange County from the Texas governor after that state’s stay at home order took effect April 2.
The manufacturing plant in Texas that produces her company’s aloe vera products and other nutritional supplements was suddenly considered non-essential and had to shut down.
Florio worked with the mayor of McAllen, Texas and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott from her office in Hillsborough, N.C., for two days before the plant could reopen. But her company, Desert Harvest, may only produce its “Super-Strength Aloe Vera Capsules” now — no other products.
“We’re kind of in a gray area,” Florio said.
The aloe vera capsules help people who have Interstitial Cystitis (IC), a chronic bladder condition that causes pain and discomfort for millions of Americans. The aloe vera coats and preserves the bladder lining and helps prevent irritation.
Florio said the capsules have an 87% response rate and are “essential to these people.”
Stay-at-home orders placed businesses across North Carolina and the country in two groups last month: essential or non-essential.
Businesses unsure about their status or that want to apply for essential status to keep operating, have been able to apply through the N.C. Department of Revenue.
Spokesperson Schorr Johnson said the department has received more than 4,000 requests since Gov. Roy Cooper’s March 27 executive order. Most requests have been from businesses that were already essential but seeking clarification, like construction companies, Schorr said.
Some deemed non-essential have had to fight to continue operations while others pivoted to essential items to continue manufacturing a product.
In some cases, whether a company can stay open and what it can manufacture depends on what permits it has.
Philip Freeman, CEO of Murphy’s Naturals — a Raleigh-based company that produces insect repellent products — said the company switched to hand sanitizer because it already had necessary ingredients and a permit to use ethanol.
Desert Harvest’s office employees are trained to do wellness checks because callers are desperate for a solution and sometimes suicidal from the debilitating pain IC causes.
But most of the company’s office employees are home now. So, Florio and her family are filling orders, and she is answering most of the calls.
In the Texas manufacturing plant, the company’s normal 20 employees have been scaled back to four as it produces just its most popular product.
Still, Florio said, it’s better than nothing.
“To have our production shut down was pretty scary,” she said.
And despite the pandemic, she said, Desert Harvest’s Amazon orders increased by more than 250% in March from last year, and vitamin C product sales nearly doubled. The products that aren’t being made right now are still selling until they run out.
Florio said she forecast supply chain issues and ramped up aloe vera plant production and storage. It takes 89 full-grown leaves from the plant to produce one bottle of capsules and the company has its own aloe vera plant farms in the Caribbeans. But limits on imports during the COVID-19 pandemic have made it difficult to even handle that.
For other products, she said the same forecasting couldn’t be done. Ingredients like Vitamin C have completely run dry.
“We’re grappling with new issues each day,” she said. “We don’t know from one product to the next whether our supply chain will hold up.”
Desert Harvest normally has a sale in June and customers are already calling, worried the company will run out before then. Florio said they had about nine months worth of most products stocked before the pandemic. Now their stock pile ranges anywhere from none to just a couple of months of product left.
So, she turned to trying to make hand sanitizer. But for weeks, the company lacked the necessary federal permit to use ethanol, the primary alcohol ingredient in sanitizer.
“We’re having to jump through a lot of government hoops right now,” she said.
On Thursday, a company representative said Desert Harvest had received permission to use alcohol and was moving toward making its own hand sanitizer.
‘Hand sanitizer wasn’t on our radar’
Murphy’s Naturals normally uses plant ingredients to produce mosquito-repellent products. Freeman wasn’t sure if the company was essential at first.
Then, the question of hand sanitizer came up.
“Less than a month ago, hand sanitizer wasn’t on our radar,” Freeman said. “Someone asked us if we could make it and I said, ‘I don’t know.’”
Now, the company is using its production equipment in Raleigh to only make hand sanitizer; all other operations are halted.
Freeman said he found out it could work because the company received a permit last year to use ethanol for its lemon eucalyptus oil insect repellent. It already had other ingredients normally found in hand sanitizer, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recently loosened regulations on alcohol-based sanitizers.
The cards were already in place to make the switch, but Freeman said he understands how difficult it can be to get permits and move through regulations.
He said the process began with tabletop batches and a simple formula. The graphics team worked to produce labels quickly, and it all came together in just a matter of days. One of the first orders, around 30,000 bottles, went to the U.S. Navy. The company also shipped a batch to the Department of Veterans Affairs to help in medical centers.
Switching to the essential product was about “doing others good, which is part of who we are,” Freeman said.
The company is selling the sanitizer on its website as well, $29.99 for a 6-pack of 4 oz bottles. The first two online batches both sold out in minutes.
Freeman said hand sanitizer will be a long-term product for them now, though he plans to get approval to add more ingredients, like aloe vera, rather than just the basic sanitizer he’s legally allowed to make now, The News & Observer previously reported.
There are currently 12 people working staggered shifts in manufacturing for Murphy’s Naturals; the company added a couple recently to handle the new product load. The equipment being used to produce the hand sanitizer is normally for insect repellent, which he said has been problematic at times and caused some “long nights and weekends.”
But it just received new parts which should handle the problems and he said they’re expecting another, delayed, shipment of ethanol this week.
“It’s cannibalizing our other products, but so be it.” Freeman said. “It’s what’s needed right now.”
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