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Registered nurse Alba Sanchez, from Smithtown Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care, wears a face shield to protect herself from exposure to airborne coronavirus splatter. Photo from Dr. John Folan

By Donna Deedy

Local residents have pulled together in extraordinary ways to help fight COVID-19. Among them is Setauket resident Richard Sobel, a partner in a new venture that’s bringing protective face shields for health care workers to the marketplace.

Sobel co-owns a company that produces conveyor systems. Like so many other businesses, he had to temporarily close operations due to the pandemic. Once he learned that Stony Brook University Hospital needed 5,000 face shields, he sprang into action. 

He reached out to Jeremy Donovan and Stan Winston, teachers at The Stony Brook School, where his son Owen is enrolled. He read that a few students there were using 3D printing to make masks for the hospital.

“I knew my manufacturing facility could quickly produce these face shields,” he said.

Together with David Ecker, director of Stony Brook University’s iCreate Lab, and his team of innovators, a collaboration was born.

Sobel retooled his factory, rehired seven furloughed workers full time and recruited volunteers that included his own children and other local high school and college students. Sobel’s company Railex, delivered 5,000 face shields in four days to the university hospital at no charge, using equipment donated by Lowes, Home Depot, P.C. Richard & Son, JPG Electric, LPR Precision, North Shore Tool and The Stony Brook School.

“Without any one of these organizations, this would have never happened,” Sobel said.

But what started as a charitable act soon turned into an important essential business.

After donating the initial supply to Stony Brook University, Sobel’s company began selling the face shields, mainly to mid-sized and smaller health care facilities and to medical professionals themselves.

Dr. John Folan, a local physician, was among Sobel’s first customers. His practice cares for aging and vulnerable patients at rehab and assisted living centers in St. James and Smithtown. Prior to the pandemic, Folan explained that health care facilities had supplied the equipment to their employees.

“The PPE shortage hit us hard,” he said. “Hospitals get first dibs.”

With supplies scarce, the virus spreading and patients dying, Folan and his staff took it upon themselves to secure their own protective equipment, some of which they donated to Smithtown Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing Care.

“What’s great about the face shield is that it’s reusable,” Folan said. “It can be cleaned and sanitized.”

Prior to receiving the Railex face shield order, he said that medical staff had resorted to wearing goggles, which are uncomfortable and hard to clean.

“It’s nice to know that your neighbor has the ingenuity to solve an urgent problem,” he said.

Today Railex is making about 1,200 face shields each day to keep up with current demand. Sobel said his company is happy to accept orders for the face shields, whether it’s one or thousands.

All around, people were happy to get involved, to innovate on the fly using new techniques to help make a difference in a desperate situation, Ecker said.