Every hospital in the U.S. and Canada—close to 6,000 total—uses a medical-grade refrigerator or freezer made at Noblesville-based Helmer Scientific, and yet, facilities needed hundreds more during the height of the pandemic in the spring. Now catching its breath from the first frenzied wave of demand, Helmer Scientific is buzzing at a steadier rate, supplying refrigerators and freezers that store COVID-19 treatments. But the next chapter is perhaps the most uncertain for the company, as vaccine efforts reach a fever pitch, a second wave of the virus is possible and healthcare budgets are more volatile than ever before.
“We’re extraordinarily proud to work in this industry; I get emotional just talking about it,” says Helmer Scientific Chief Executive Officer Bruce King. “The products we’re building are saving lives the day they get to the customer. We are caregivers indirectly—the products we build are supporting people very directly who are on the front lines. And I’m so proud of our team and the headwinds we’ve gotten around.”
Emergency demand swept through the facility in March and April; production shut down temporarily to re-engineer manufacturing lines, so workers could be six feet apart and meet higher cleanliness standards. Helmer Scientific churned out close to 1,000 units, as hospitals scrambled to store medications needed for ICU patients.
Helmer Scientific is now settling into a second wave of demand that feels “a little less sharp from a ‘we’ve-gotta-have-it-right-this-second’ standpoint,” says King. But demand is still elevated as its products support treatments nationwide. Hospitals are clamoring for freezers to store convalescent plasma, one of the key treatments for COVID-19, in which plasma from a person who has recovered from the virus is given to a patient trying to beat COVID-19.
But the company is preparing for a third phase that is even more uncertain. Efforts to develop a COVID-19 vaccine are making significant strides, and the vast majority of vaccine candidates will require refrigeration.
“Like many across the country, we’re reading every scientific study we can to try to understand when the vaccine might become available, and how the storage conditions will be revealed. We’re trying to assess all of that and be ready,” says Helmer Scientific Vice President of Sales and Marketing Lori Gabrek. “On top of all of this, we’re trying to figure out if the hospitals will see a second surge of COVID-19 in the fall. If that happens, we anticipate another wave [of demand], but we’re just reading the tea leaves and trying to anticipate to the best of our ability.”
While Helmer is hopeful it will have a window of lead time to prepare for a vaccine rollout, King says, “I can’t share yet with any credibility how much volume we’d be looking at” for mass vaccine distribution. Additionally, much of the company’s business is based on healthcare budgets, which are currently squeezed.
“Hospitals are only now bringing [services] back online and staring at a recession that we’re clearly in now. Health systems are being very careful, so those capital budgets are freezing, in many cases, and questioning long-term projects,” says King. “We have to manage for being careful in this business and making sure we keep the wheels on, while also being prepared to quickly shift the gears and get back to urgent production to meet an outsized demand.”
He says company leaders are planning for multiple scenarios, “and we’re poised to ease into those options, as the leading indicators tell us it’s the wise thing to do.”
“We have to build out our plans as if we’re going to head a certain direction, but just not pull the trigger,” says King. “I bet every business has a degree of this right now, but ours has been particularly dynamic, because of our customers’ role in responding to the crisis. The one thing we know right now is that we don’t know. This year has been the most uncertain one I’ve ever witnessed in this business in 20-some years.”
Despite the unpredictable demands of a pandemic, King notes one constant is the perseverance and resiliency of the company’s production team, as it’s weathered the headwinds of unprecedented demand and upheaval in their daily tasks.
“Our company supports the frontline heroes of healthcare,” says King. “Their mission is our mission, and their pressure is our pressure, so we have to keep going.”
King says protecting the production team is critical, and outbreaks at other manufacturing facilities are a reminder of how easily the virus can spread.
Gabrek recalls the frenzied first wave of emergency demand in March and April.