First responders in Biddeford received 1,000 new face shields Tuesday from a local manufacturer that is retooling its operation to focus on an essential component of personal protection equipment (PPE) helpful to those on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic battle.

Thermoformed Plastics of New England, based in Biddeford, made 12,500 face shields last week which were donated to health care facilities and first responders in Maine and New Hampshire. One of its customers – Alene Candles of Milford, New Hampshire – provided necessary components and labor to assemble the finished shields, which include an elastic band and foam cushion for the forehead.

Paul Tyson, general manager of Thermoformed Plastics of New England in Biddeford, shows a face shield on Tuesday to Kevin Duross, assistant deputy of the Biddeford Fire Department. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

“With the limited PPE that we have, and especially the eye protection and respiratory protection, the masks are extremely beneficial to us to be able to protect us from any splashes that may occur with any patient contact,” said Kevin Duross, deputy chief of the Biddeford Fire Department. “Whether it’s a fire call or an emergency medical call or the police officers on their calls, the amount of equipment that we need to wear now … has just increased so much.”

New Communities, which operates four assisted-living facilities, eight mental health facilities and 14 homes for individuals with intellectual challenges, accepted a donation of 250 masks on Sunday. Its largest facility is in Biddeford, but there are operations from Berwick to Bangor.

“We’ve got thin supplies of PPE, so everything helps,” said David Dill, director of finance for New Communities. “We’re a nonprofit organization that is primarily funded through MaineCare, so when we get a donation like this of that size, it really goes a long way.”

Paul Tyson, general manager of TPNE, said he started receiving calls about face shields last month, but he wasn’t certain about their exact nature. He did some research and discovered that his manufacturing plant, which already supplies companies in the medical field with diagnostic and laboratory components, is well-suited for creating a thin plastic screen that measures 11 inches by 8 inches and includes an anti-fogging agent.

With the material already in stock, Tyson reached out to his customers and made it clear that “we were coming from a community effort and not a business opportunity. We donate and you donate.”

Following the success of the initial run, Tyson began receiving more requests to partner with TPNE, which also received orders for more than 600,000 shields in the next few weeks from companies trying to fulfill PPE contracts. He said he agreed to the larger orders provided the finished product is being sold at market rates.

By Friday, Tyson said he hopes to clear back orders of other products quickly enough to focus exclusively on cranking out face shields, at a rate of roughly 50,000 per day. In addition the work being done in Milford, New Hampshire, other finishing work on the shields will be done in Boston, Connecticut, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

“We’re wrapping up everything that isn’t COVID-related and trying to shift all our resources to COVID production,” he said. “The need is so great for these things and we’ve got the kind of equipment that is just tailor-made for it.”

Originally from Chicago, Tyson was stationed at Loring Air Force Base while in the military and put down roots in Maine.

He said his company, located in Biddeford’s Industrial Park, has 15 employees and has been in business since 2003. Beyond the medical field, TPNE also offers design, prototyping, tooling and production services to a range of industries that includes retail, material handling, defense, telecommunications and food packaging.

While some of the company’s non-medical customers have eliminated or cut back on orders, “those still going forward have all said to put us on the back burner, that we can wait,” Tyson said. “I’ve been amazed at the community support, and not just in southern Maine, but we service companies all over the country. They realize that if they’re taking up an hour of our time, under normal production, it’s 5,000 (fewer) shields we can produce.”

“I can’t thank him enough for doing this, for our first responders,” said JoAnne Fisk, deputy chief of the Biddeford police department.

The company also donated face shields to Southern Maine Health Care, Central Maine Medical Center and Hospice of Southern Maine. Alene Candle, which provided foam and elastic band components, donated shields to a variety of health care facilities in New Hampshire.

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