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Wisconsin Medical Supplies, a new Eau Claire company, is making 250,000 surgical face masks a week, with a goal of increasing production to double that rate.

Two Chippewa Valley entrepreneurs have shifted gears from operating a trash and recycling service to manufacturing surgical face masks.

Andrew Holland and Joe Craven started ProVyro Waste Services in 2010, and they obtained a contract to operate the Chippewa Falls recycling program in 2015. However, they sold the business to Boxx Sanitation in July 2019, and by October, they were completely separated from the company. Craven began working in Colorado, while Holland was traveling back and forth to Arizona for a job.

However, when COVID-19 took off in late February, Holland said they saw a need for more face masks that were made in the United States.

“We all saw the shortages for health care workers,” Holland said. “We started doing some research, and after calling around and seeing if it was viable, we formed our company.”

This was around the time when there were reports of price-gouging as masks became hard to find. Seeing that shortage of supply in the U.S., Holland said the duo saw an opportunity to launch a new venture and help a lot of people.

Along with a new partner, Samantha Holzman, the entrepreneurs formed Wisconsin Medical Supplies. They acquired mask-making equipment from China, and set up shop in the former 3M building at 2020 Prairie Lane in Eau Claire.

“That (machine) took 2½ to three months for it to arrive,” Holland said. “We got it in May, and started producing.”

They began making 250,000 masks a week, with a goal of ramping up to 500,000 a week. Including the three owners, they employ eight workers.

They are producing three-ply surgical face masks, designed to have a 99.3% bacterial filtration efficiency.

“Quality control is huge for us,” he said. “The feedback we’re getting is our masks are much more comfortable,” adding that they are looser around the ears.

Ideally, a vaccine against COVID-19 will be available sooner than later, and masks won’t be universally required or desired, Holland said. But even if the pandemic subsides, hospitals and some businesses and individuals will still opt to purchase them.

“Who knows how long the surgical face masks will be needed in the United States. We believe this is a long-term model,” Holland said. “There is zero question this (pandemic) will have a long-term impact on our behavior and responses.”

The company launched their website, wisconsinmedicalsupplies.com, last month, where consumers can buy face masks directly. The masks also are sold at One Source Imaging in Eau Claire.

“We wanted to be ready, and have an inventory,” Holland said. “We didn’t want people to need orders and us to not be able to fulfill them.”

Holland said they’ve had multiple orders from out-of-state firms, but about 90% of sales are from within Wisconsin, with local manufacturers buying the most.

Holland said the state’s face mask requirement while indoors in public spaces — which began Saturday — is long overdue. He encourages people to reach out to them if they are struggling to get masks.

“If someone needs PPE, we’ll find a way for them to have it,” Holland said. “We shouldn’t have anyone having to use a shirt or a paper towel.”