Chroma, Omega take center stage in coronavirus testing

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BRATTLEBORO — Two Windham County high-tech manufacturers are in the thick of the fight against the coronavirus.

Omega Optical of Brattleboro and Chroma Technology Inc. of Rockingham both manufacture high-tech optical filters, which among many things are used in the specialty machines that process the coronavirus tests.

Their filters go into PCR machines, which are described by Chroma CEO Paul Millman as "the primary diagnostic tool for the COVID virus." The PCR machines, or polymerase chain reaction equipment, test the nasal swab for fluorescence, or how light breaks down into color. The filters can be used by companies making the testing machines or working to develop a vaccine.

Both companies, which are competitors, have ramped up production in the past couple of weeks in order to meet increased demand that skyrocketed last month as the pandemic gained a foothold in the United States.

Both are working on strategies to help additional companies counter the pandemic.

"We had our best month ever in March," said Bob Mann, of Omega Optical, which was founded in Brattleboro 51 years ago by Robert Johnson. Mann, who is head of sales and marketing, said that originally he was afraid the pandemic would result in canceled orders for the company, which is located in the Delta Business Park.

But instead, he said, orders have come in at levels never seen before for the month of March.

"We all anticipated cancellations and delays on the orders," Mann said Monday during an interview with Omega company officials.

Chroma, which was founded 29 years ago by six former Omega employees, has also had a big increase in orders from those bio-medical customers involved in testing, according to Millman.

"It increased dramatically over the last three or four weeks. The orders from those customers are much larger than we have experienced in the last 10 years," said Millman, noting that Chroma has been making filters for PCR machines for 10 years.

"The demand on those companies ... the whole world needs those machines," he said "There aren't enough machines as they need to be," he said, criticizing the lack of planning on the part of the federal government.

He said Chroma's customers are being asked to dramatically increase their manufacturing as well. Chroma has shifted more of its production on the optical filters needed for the PCR machines, rather than other product lines. "It takes a lot of management skills," he said.

"We're managing to keep up and it's not enough," he said, noting last week that one customer, which was now allied with a much larger company, had been asked to manufacture thousands more machines.

"All the major medical companies, those are our customers," said Johnson, the founder of Omega. He said the company is also working on sterilization applications using the company's filters, which is another top priority in the fight against the virus.

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Johnson and the other Omega executives said they were brainstorming about new applications for their filters during the virus crisis.

Johnson said Omega had its first discussion about the coronavirus on Feb 2. "We knew this was going to be serious," he said, noting the company had invested in raw materials - primarily specialty glass - to make sure it could meet demand.

Tom Smith, the CEO of Omega, said the company is working with the state's Congressional leaders to make sure there is an interface between what the company can produce and what is needed.

At the same time, the company is looking into the CARES Act, passed by Congress about 10 days ago, to explore the financial incentives for the company to hold on to its staff and not have to resort to layoffs or furloughs, if the current business boom deflates.

Smith said holding on to the company's experienced and highly trained staff is very important.

At the same time, he said, the company is putting a high priority on keeping its machines in top working order.

"In order to come back quicker, we have to keep machines in good shape," he said.

"I'm anticipating growth," said Johnson, who said he expects the federal government to promote the high-tech industries after the crisis passes.

Omega has urged whatever employees who can work from home to work from home, and has set up staggered shifts to lessen the number of people in the buildings at any given time, to create the social distancing that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has ordered, Smith said.

Millman said Chroma has also adopted a staggered schedule, with people working different shifts in order to lighten the number of workers on the job at any given time.

The company's cleaning service now comes in twice a day, he said. And everywhere it's gloves, cleaning stations and hand sanitizer.

Some employees who are considered vulnerable to the disease have special shifts, he said, where there are few people in the building. The company is now working seven days a week, with what he called "odd shifts."

The company is maintaining social distancing inside the building, with a minimum of 6 feet, and preferably 10 feet, he said.

"We're keeping everyone safe while the company keeps manufacturing," Millman said.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 556-2147.


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