On the same day a handful of its employees all returned to work from a two-week quarantine, Pacific Research Laboratories/Sawbones announced it would closed the doors of its island-based plant for two weeks, beginning March 24, after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new order to combat the spread of coronavirus.
The 175-employee company closed its production plant, while allowing those who can work from home the ability to do so. The company also committed to paying its employees through the two-week shutdown.
“Pacific Research Laboratories, Inc. is committed to doing everything we can to stop the spread of this virus,” CEO Norine Martinsen said in a prepared statement. “It is important that we all continue to practice social distancing and adhere to this mandate set out by our Governor. To all our friends, families, employees, and customers, please be safe and smart so that we can all join together again in the very near future.”
Martinsen had told The Beachcomber this week that she was not worried about the company’s future in part because she had enforced social distancing between employees at the plant. She also said employees’ workspaces were set far apart, unlike most manufacturing centers.
PRL/Sawbones had also stepped up cleaning procedures since January when news of coronavirus in the U.S. first broke, including implmenting “additional sanitizing and deep cleaning routines to our usual cleaning practices as well as additional hand-sanitizing stations at every entrance,” Martinsen said.
But questions remain as to whether the company that manufactures anatomical parts for the medical industry should have closed at all.
The governor’s office provided a list of businesses deemed “essential” that would be exempt from shutdown. Under manufacturing, it says workers “neccessary for the manufacturing of materials and products needed for medical supply chains” would not be affected.
That’s significant because a day before PRL/Sawbones announced a temporary shutdown, Martinsen told The Beachcomber that the company is “working with another vendor of ours” as a partner “so we can utilize our assembly capabilities” in order to make surgical face shields.
“We’re early in that process, so I can’t even tell you what that looks like,” Martinsen said.
Martinsen thought PRL/Sawbones should join in the effort to make masks because “even though we still have sales orders to fulfill, we just feel it’s important to use our manufacturing capabilities to help with the current situation.”
When the newspaper the governor’s office of Martinsen’s comments, a spokesman for Inslee said, “it’s entirely possible that this is an essential business and does not need to shutdown,” and suggested PRL/Sawbones contact the Department of Commerce.
Martinsen did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Still, PRL/Sawbones was recently faced with having to isolate 11 employees after they came into close contact with a former colleague who tested positive for the coronavirus. But none of those quarantined employees came down with COVID-19. Two employees came back to work March 20, Martinsen said, while the others returned the following Monday.
PRL/Sawbones learned of a positive COVID-19 case within its company earlier this month. On March 10, a temporary employee, whose last day was March 6, was diagnosed with coronavirus. That employee, who is a Tacoma resident, rode to work via a ride-sharing program with several others who work for PRL/Sawbones. And, although he was in a somewhat isolated workstation at the Vashon-based manufacturing plant, he came into contact regularly with a handful of other employees.
Upon learning of the positive case, PRL/Sawbones consulted Public Health – Seattle & King County, which recommended six employees who shared a ride with that person and five others were in close contact at work to go into a 14-day quarantine from home.
“We check in with them every day,” Martinsen said during an interview last week. “I think that people need to be compassionate for folks that are in quarantine because it’s not easy.”
Sawbones, a subsidiary of Pacific Research Laboratories, was the first place on the island to report a positive case of coronavirus. The disease, which originated in China, made its way to the U.S. in January from a Washington man who had recently traveled to the region and since then, the number cases and deaths have exponentially grown. As of Monday, Public Health reported the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in King County were 1170, he total number dead from the virus is 87.
VashonBePrepared reports that as of March 20, no resident on the island has a confirmed case of COVID-19.
The growing number of cases triggered several Vashon-Maury Island businesses to take precautionary measures, ranging from canceling events to shutting their doors temporarily, in light of the coronavirus scare. Through it all, the PRL/Sawbones plant, located at 10221 SW 188th Street on Vashon, remained open, according to Martinsen.
In an interview, Martinsen did not think an internal investigation of the confirmed coronavirus case was needed.
“I’m not sure what kind of investigation we could actually do because of HIPPA laws,” she said. “All we can do is respond with the information that we learned and make sure that we’ve either quarantined the folks that had direct contact and then also inform our employees.”
Martinsen rejected the notion that Sawbones could be an epicenter for the coronavirus.
“I don’t think that’s a fair question. I think that that’s irresponsible,” Martinsen said. “We’re doing everything we can to keep our employees safe and our community safe. If people are sick, we’re sending them home.”
In fact, PRL/Sawbones said all of its employees have time-off and leave options available as needed for themselves, for caring for family members, and those who are able to have the option of working from home.”
“We will continue to closely monitor information and follow recommendations from the CDC and KCHD,” the company said in a statement.
The company has experienced employee absences unrelated to coronavirus, Martinsen said, which means the company is “running lean.”
“We are known for our service, quality and on-time delivery,” she wrote in a statement posted on the company’s website. “We plan to continue to do our best to meet expectations and uphold that reputation for our team as well as for you, our valued customers.”
Martinsen commented on the “stressful” nature of the coronavirus situation for her employees and their families.
“Know that, as a company, we pride ourselves on providing a safe place to work and caring for our employees,” she wrote.
She continued, “We have a culture that is strong and steeped in the values of teamwork, respect, compassion, and trust. We want you to know that the welfare of our PRL/Sawbones team, their families, and our community are our top priority and appreciate your continued trust in our company.”