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March 15, 2021

N95 masks made in America by Arkansas veterinarian

Ordering a mask-making machine during a global pandemic was no small feat, Dr. Rob Conner says
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Veterinarians have gone above and beyond this past year to ensure the safety of staff members and clients at their practices, from implementing curbside service to sanitizing surfaces more regularly to keeping personal protective equipment in stock. But perhaps none have gone as far as Dr. Rob Conner, owner of All Creatures Veterinary Hospitals in Mountain Home, Arkansas. He decided ordering N95 respirator masks wasn’t enough. Instead, he was going to make his own.

After the first cases appeared in the Seattle area last January and February, Dr. Conner called clinics there to understand what they were seeing. Soon after, he put up plexiglass barriers in his own clinics, got disinfectant spray similar to what’s used on airplanes, and closed off the waiting room to clients in favor of curbside service.

That February, he also ordered 18,000 KN95 masks from China for $1.40 each, paying an additional $27 per box for shipping. He planned to keep enough masks for his staff and sell or donate the rest, but the local hospital wanted all of them, so he ordered more. This time, they cost $2.50 each and $585 per box to ship. He didn’t get them until two months later.

“The boxes looked like they had been in a prize fight, and ‘FDA’ had been misspelled,” Dr. Conner said. “It gave me low confidence that I was providing any kind of protection to my staff and the community.”

He figured that with an unreliable supply of masks, he had to do something, but he didn’t know what. He talked to a neighbor and friends, including a civil engineer and a radiologist in human medicine, and they asked: Why not make N95 masks themselves?

Dr. Conner's N95 mask production facility
Dr. Rob Conner and his business partners invested in producing N95 masks after not being content with the KN95 masks he ordered early on in the pandemic. “We wanted to make a mask that would protect our community, that was our big thing. We just want to keep people safe,” Dr. Conner said. He says people are generally wearing the wrong kind of mask. They need one that seals to the face and filters more than 95% of particles. (Photos courtesy of Dr. Conner)

Starting from scratch

Of course, ordering a mask-manufacturing machine from China during a global pandemic, especially given the political turmoil between the U.S. and China at the time, came with inherent difficulties.

One hurdle was the language barrier. He teamed up with the owner of a local Chinese restaurant to translate for him while he talked to an engineer in China. He asked the engineer to build and ship a machine to make the masks.

Another obstacle was price gouging. When Dr. Conner first ordered the machine, it was to arrive at the end of last March. But then he found out the price had increased by $100,000, so he refused delivery.

“Even though I had a signed contract, the price would jump, often twice the amount,” he said, because of competition from people in Saudi Arabia or Europe who would offer more money. “It was demoralizing every time it would fail.”

Four machines later, Dr. Conner and his business partners finally received one this past October. It came in 12 gigantic crates.

“When it arrived, we stared at the parts like, ‘What have we done?’ There were several times I was way outside my comfort zone.”

They not only had to work out the differences between Chinese and U.S. electrical systems but also figure out how to put the machine together and learn how to start it. After talking to engineers in China and furiously searching the internet, they got the machine up and running in early November. It can make 4,000 masks an hour. They hired eight community members who had lost their jobs to run the machine as well as package and ship the masks. They formed The Masketeers LLC and set up a website at AmericaN95 Masks.

“If we can sell high-quality masks and make a good business of it, we’re determined to do it,” Dr. Conner said, but as he’s found during this process, it’s not that simple.

In a Catch-22 situation, Dr. Conner says he’s been told to not market to the public because government officials have hoped to reserve supplies for front-line and health care workers. Yet, experts are increasingly saying better face coverings are needed to curb more-transmissible strains of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as vaccine rollout is underway.

He says the right mask has to be wearable, comfortable, and breathable and has to seal to your face. It should also block 95% or more of particles.

For their masks, Dr. Conner and his partners found some U.S.-based companies making filter material less than 0.3 microns thick for the outer layer. In addition, the masks have an inner layer of hydrophilic material that wicks moisture away from your face.

“I see all these public figures wearing the wrong mask. Then I read in the national news how they don’t want everyone to wear N95 masks so they can be available to first responders, but I do think for the general public, we do need to produce the correct masks to protect,” Dr. Conner said.

He’s encouraged by the executive order from President Joe Biden in late January that pushes the federal government to buy more American-made goods, but Dr. Conner also knows that likely means buying from much larger companies than his.

“People pat us on the back, but as far as the federal or state government, no one seems to know or care we exist. Sadly, the most good we’re doing is local and around the state,” although they have sold to buyers as far away as Australia and Germany.

He’s received numerous calls from people who want to buy masks nearly at cost with the intent to raise the prices and sell to the public.

“They are profiteers,” he said. “This isn’t a great time to be an opportunist, it’s a great time to be a good person.

“We’re just a bunch of misfits trying to help the world, trying to figure out the bureaucracy.”

Some of Dr. Conner's masked staff with patients
Dr. Conner runs two veterinary clinics with a total of 40 employees, some pictured here wearing masks produced by his company.

Back in the office

Meanwhile, Dr. Conner still runs his two clinics with a total of 40 employees, including seven associate veterinarians. None of the veterinarians has tested positive for SARS-CoV-2. He said he’s been fully staffed the entire time, with no major absences, because of his insistence from the start that the staff wear proper N95 masks.

His clinic’s first positive case among staff members came in May. The local public health department initially told Dr. Conner that everyone had been exposed, and the clinic would have to shut down. But when he told them about the N95 mask usage and other precautions his clinic had taken, “They told me I was doing more than the local hospital and that we could stay open,” Dr. Conner said.

The clinics partially opened their lobbies in November, when it got colder, but continue to observe social distancing and limit the number of clients who can come in, disinfect after each patient, and have everyone use hand sanitizer and wear an N95 mask.

“We’re tired. There’s a lot of fatigue that goes with it. And uncertainty. One vet tech’s grandfather is in the hospital and is not expected to make it. Another technician has a grandparent sick in a nursing home. Both are COVID related. Our kennel manager just got back from a 14-day quarantine because she was sick with the coronavirus along with her husband. She said it was horrific how sick she was. We’ve all been worried about her.” She had picked up the virus during a social event at home.

During the pandemic, Dr. Conner has taken his employees on a kayak trip, and he even rented out a theater for everyone to watch a movie—while social distancing, of course.

“When you get in a high-pressure, different environment like this, what happens is you forget these are your friends and fellow soldiers in the foxhole. ... We’re trying to find creative ways to enjoy each other’s company outside of work.

“Oddly enough, we grew during the pandemic. We had to push customers from the lobby, but even then we grew because customers knew we were going to take care of them.

“We’re in the South, and some people would come in and say they’re not going to wear a mask. One thing I told them was the virus is not political. It could not care less how you feel about a party. It is a virus, and all it does is seek a host.”