By Noelani Kirschner

The U.S. private sector is facing the challenge posed by the COVID-19 virus head-on.

As medical staff care for patients across the country, the need for protective N95 disposable respirators is skyrocketing. In response, the manufacturing giant Honeywell is ramping up its production of N95 masks by hiring 500 new employees at its Smithfield, Rhode Island, facility. The company is also increasing production at multiple facilities globally.

In the meantime, Apple’s chief executive, Tim Cook, announced that the company will donate millions of N95 masks for health professionals across the U.S. and Europe to help with more immediate needs.

Other companies, like clothing manufacturer HanesBrands Inc., are halting their general apparel production to create Food and Drug Administration–approved cotton masks for the general public to wear as a protective measure.

To meet the demands of local hospitals in Orange County, California, a small business, AST Sportswear, is dedicating its efforts to producing cotton masks. “We actually ordered 30 more machines just to make these masks. Our workers are all here, we’re trying to not lay anybody off,” Nadir Zulfiqar, sales manager, told a local television news program. About 500 employees there now work different shifts — spaced 1.8 meters apart — sewing face masks.

Another small business from Minnesota, MyPillow, is shifting production from pillows to cotton masks for hospitals across the country and dedicating 90% of their staff to the effort.

To further help hospitals, several U.S. companies are gearing up to produce ventilators in factories that are equipped to do so. Carmaker Tesla’s chief executive, Elon Musk, is exploring options to manufacture the equipment in partnership with medical equipment facilities. In the meantime, he purchased 1,255 FDA-approved ventilators to be distributed throughout the country.

In addition to washing hands regularly, use of hand sanitizer can slow the spread of COVID-19. A number of U.S. alcohol distilleries have begun producing batches of hand sanitizer to meet the increased demands of local communities.

Anheuser-Busch, an American brewery that employs over 30,000 workers, announced that it will begin to redirect its efforts to producing and distributing bottles of hand sanitizer across the U.S.

Even smaller operations are joining the effort. A representative from Litchfield Distillery in Connecticut said that since March 16, it has produced roughly 1,900 liters of hand sanitizer and bottled over 16,000 bottles for nearby residents.

“It’s been a whirlwind for us,” said the distillery owners, Jack, Peter and David Baker. “But we’re happy to be able to help people during this time.”

A Litchfield Distillery co-owner, David Baker, fills spray bottles with hand sanitizer. (© Litchfield Distillery)

As U.S. scientists work to make faster and more effective tests for COVID-19, private U.S. companies are coordinating with the U.S. government to safely reach greater numbers of citizens. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly is offering drive-thru testing to Indianapolis-area health care workers who may have been exposed to the virus. Similarly, retail corporation Walmart opened two federal sites in its Chicago-area stores’ parking lots to serve first responders and health care workers. CVS Health Corp. has done the same in Shrewsbury, Massachusetts.

The U.S. tech sector is responding to the needs of distancing and distance learning, as more and more schools are teaching courses online. To prevent unnecessary trips to the doctor, Microsoft is helping the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention create a symptoms-checking bot. Patients plug in their symptoms to determine whether the symptoms match COVID-19 and if they need medical care.

To help parents and educators teach their children from home, Google launched Teach from Home, “a tools & resources hub to help teachers continue teaching during school closures,” its chief executive, Sundar Pichai, announced on Twitter. And internet provider Comcast is opening its Xfinity Wi-Fi network for free across the nation for the next 60 days.

For university students who had to leave their campuses in a rush, shipping and storage services company U-Haul announced it will give 30 days of free self-storage at its facilities.

“The outpouring from the private sector has also been extraordinary,” said President Trump on March 22. “We’re enduring a great national trial, and we will prove that we can meet the moment.”

Banner image: Eli Lilly employees prepare to start drive-thru testing for COVID-19 in Indianapolis on March 23. (© Michael Conroy/AP Images)