Coquitlam company retools, will be first in Canada to produce N95 respirators

Jason Zanatta is saving lives, and saving jobs.

The Coquitlam-based producer of pillows and dog beds is poised to become the first manufacturer of N95 respirators in Canada. Production of medical-grade surgical masks starts on Tuesday, and he anticipates production of N95 surgical respirator masks will begin within two weeks.

“It’s what I had to do to survive, and trying to be a decent human being and trying to help out in this crisis,”

said Zanatta, president and CEO of Novo Textiles. “It was either that or close my business.”

It’s been a wild three weeks since Zanatta looked out over the floor of his 20,000-sq.-ft. Coquitlam factory, agonizing about how to save his business. Dog beds and pillows were not what people were shopping for during a pandemic. When COVID-19 isolation mandates were announced, orders dried up quickly.

Zanatta, who is immune-compromised and the father of two young sons, heard Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s call to action on March 20 asking businesses to mobilize to manufacture personal protective equipment.

He immediately reached out to contacts in China who helped him source two fully automated mask production machines. As borders were closing and international freight options were drying up, he knew he had to act quickly. He paid $600,000 in cash for the two-tonne machines.

The first machine was air-freighted to Vancouver — a near miracle, its delivery eased through international channels with help from “various levels of government,” he said.

Zanatta received delivery of the first surgical mask machine on Monday. “I haven’t slept in four nights (in preparation),” he said.

He expects delivery of the N95 respirator-making machine sometime in the next two weeks.

“The seamstresses are retraining right now to do quality control, run the machines and do packaging. They are thrilled,”

said Zanatta, adding that they will also be manufacturing medical-grade pillows for hospitals.

Zanatta is watching videos in Mandarin and using Google translate to learn the details of how to set up the machine.

“Up until the world changed in the past month, when you bought an automated machine, the manufacturer would send an engineer to help you assemble it,” said Zanatta.

He will FaceTime throughout the night with his suppliers in China to tweak the final setup.

Starting Tuesday, 100,000 medical-grade surgical masks will be rolling off the assembly line daily. Once the second machine arrives, he will be able to produce 100,000 N95 masks a day as well.

“Three weeks ago, I was walking the factory floor, and with the majority of my clients announcing closures, I was thinking about how I was going to keep everyone employed. And these people have been with me for so long, I knew that they had families and it was important to keep the family business running.”

Zanatta’s first customer was the Provincial Health Services Authority, with an order for 500,000 masks, followed by the RCMP with an order for 30,000. He is also fielding inquiries from across the U.S.

“We wouldn’t say no to them, but we will be filling our Canadian orders first,” said Zanatta.

Surgical masks and N95 respirators must meet strict guidelines, and Zanatta’s company has been certified by Health Canada with a Class One Medical Device license.

“It’s been a nerve-racking two weeks, and probably the most exciting two weeks of my life.”

Zanatta, who runs the business with his wife Julie, said the last three weeks have also been a lesson in the importance of community.

“My contact in China is a small business owner too — a husband and a wife, and two small children working just as hard as we are to produce the machines to help get this virus under control. What it highlights for me is how intertwined we all are — we are one people and one world.

While medical-grade masks are not recommended for the general public, Canada’s top medical health officer Dr. Theresa Tam said Monday that as “an additional measure simple cloth masks can help prevent the wearer from spreading the virus to others in places where physical distancing is difficult.

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