A sign for Puritan is on display outside the Pittsfield facility. Credit: Natalie Williams / BDN

The Maine company that’s one of the world’s two major producers of COVID-19 testing swabs is extending a furlough of 180 employees as demand for the swabs has slipped.

Puritan Medical Products furloughed the employees at its North Main Street plant in Pittsfield last month, and it will last for three more weeks as the company finalizes new orders from the federal government, Puritan spokesperson Virginia Templet said.

The workers are now expected to return on Aug. 2, she said.

The North Main Street plant is one of two that Puritan opened last year with federal funding as the federal government scrambled to boost its supply of COVID-19 testing swabs. In addition to the two Pittsfield plants, Puritan’s headquarters and original production facility are in Guilford, and the company is expected to begin partial operations by the end of the year at a new plant in Tennessee.  

But demand for the company’s foam testing swabs has recently fallen, Templet said.

While Puritan had long been known in medical circles and in Maine, the pandemic catapulted the family-owned company into the national spotlight. When the pandemic began shutting down the country in March 2020, Puritan was the only American company that produced the swabs necessary for COVID-19 testing.

Experts long expected that COVID-19 vaccinations would decrease demand for virus testing, but Puritan has said that it expects long-term demand to remain. The company produces both nasopharyngeal and foam testing swabs, with the North Main Street plant producing the foam swabs.

“The world has learned of the importance of testing in any outbreak,” Puritan’s executive vice president of sales, Timothy Templet, and General Manager Scott Wellman said in written responses to questions from the Bangor Daily News in April. “We will have the capacity to supply the known demand and surge for higher production if necessary.”

The federal government has now invested about $400 million in Puritan to bankroll its rapid expansion, including most recently $150 million for the Tennessee plant. By comparison, total sales for Puritan and its sister company, Hardwood Products Co., were $55 million in 2019, according to court documents.

A number of Maine manufacturers that retooled during the pandemic to produce needed supplies such as masks and face shields have returned to their original business lines as demand has fallen.

Also in Maine, Abbott Laboratories is laying off 300 workers at its Westbrook production facility as demand for the company’s COVID-19 testing kits has faded.