Soon after COVID-19 began sweeping the nation, consumers started rapidly stocking up on health-safety products to protect themselves from the virus.
Adobe Analytics, an agency that monitors E-commerce transactions for the top 80 online retailers, reported that the December-to-January demand for hand sanitizer jumped more than 1,000%. Nielsen, a company that collects sales data from point of sale scanners, reported hand sanitizer sales in the United States were up 73% in February alone.
Unfortunately, this increase in demand led to severe disruption to supply chains of personal protective equipment (PPE) like hand sanitizer. Suddenly, front-line workers – including health care providers and hospital workers – did not have access to the critical supplies needed to prevent the spread of the virus and keep them healthy.
“Hand-washing is certainly the best defense mechanism to protect ourselves and prevent the spread of the virus, however, we need something to use when we don’t have access to a sink,” said Linda Studer, the Administrator at long-term care facility Good Samaritan Society - Luther Manor in Sioux Falls, SD.
Studer saw the shortage firsthand as she worked to protect the residents of Luther Manor, many of which fall into a higher-risk category for COVID-19. Across the nation, nursing homes and assisted living facilities have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic as workers struggle to fight a disease that can be especially dangerous for those over 65.
“We were definitely impacted by the supply chain disruption and it was instant. All of a sudden you couldn’t find hand sanitizer anywhere. We had what we thought to be a significant supply in our building but when we put in our routine order we were notified it couldn’t be fulfilled. We even went out in the community and bought what we could find which wasn’t much. We just couldn’t find it anywhere,” said Studer.
This shortage was not limited to just South Dakota. A March NBC poll of 250 health care providers from across the country found that many workers were facing severe shortages of basic sanitary supplies, including hand sanitizer, and were afraid of running out.
“Hand sanitizer is critical to our infection control protocols. It’s a safe, effective and quick way to make sure we’re safe and our residents are safe,” said Studer.
In March, the World Health Organization called on industry and governments to increase the manufacturing of PPE by 40% to meet global demand. In response, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued guidance for the production of alcohol-based hand sanitizer products.
Rural communities have often symbolized the American spirit of hard work and generosity. During this challenging time, biofuel producers, a critical component of rural America, have once again lived up to that reputation.
To help alleviate the challenges front-line workers were facing to keep themselves safe, Jeff Broin, Founder and CEO of POET, knew there had to be something his company could do.
With POET’s mission in mind — to be good stewards of the Earth by converting renewable resources to valuable goods as effectively as possible — the company embraced its culture of innovation and used its resources and expertise to create a new bio-based sanitizer product.
To achieve this, POET engineers worked tirelessly to create an additional distillation process for corn, which results in pharmaceutical-grade ethanol, which is then blended into a sanitizer product. The effort required the company to adjust its manufacturing processes at biorefineries, work around the clock and lean into its strengths in engineering and operations.
The resulting product is pharmaceutical grade, meets FDA guidelines and has been verified by toxicologists as safe for human health. In fact, purified ethanol has been used in hand sanitizers and disinfectants for years before the COVID pandemic.
“We wanted to create a superior product. Our frontline workers deserve nothing but the best. We’re proud of what we’ve been able to create and the impact it will have in protecting the public,” says Rod Pierson, Senior Vice President & General Manager for POET Design & Construction.
Once the process and product were finalized, POET partnered with Sioux Falls-based companies Senproco Inc. and Cimarron to package and label the sanitizer for consumer use.
It wasn’t difficult to find a need for the product. After an initial donation to Pioneer Health in Viborg, South Dakota, POET partnered with the City of Sioux Falls and the South Dakota Health Care Coalition to identify organizations with the greatest need and oversee the distribution of the donated product.
“We were feeling kind of desperate about hand sanitizer. We were down to just a few days’ supply when the POET donation arrived, so the timing could not have been better,” says Stader. “The sanitizer provided not only relief but also great peace of mind for our staff. We know it does the job we need it to and that it’s killing germs.”
As the country continues to battle the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the need for consumer sanitizer products is unlikely to go away. POET has scaled up production of hand sanitizer at three of its 27 biorefineries. It is now supplying the product at local retail stores and online at sanitizerbypoet.com.
“It is crucial that we prevent shortages of PPE as we saw when this pandemic began. People need to stay safe and POET is grateful to be in a position to help with those efforts. It’s not something we see going away anytime soon,” said Pierson.
USDA Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue specifically called out the efforts of biofuel producers working to provide relief during the pandemic. “Thank you for being Americans and doing what it takes day in and day out to make this country as great as it has been. So to our ethanol industry: Thank you again for participating in this national emergency in a very helpful, American kind of way.”