Mar 28, 2020 - Health

How America’s ventilator shortage became GM’s problem

Image of a woman making a Ventec ventilator
GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to build ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Photo: Ventec

President Trump on Friday ordered General Motors to make ventilators to help coronavirus patients — something the automaker was already on track to do.

Why it matters: The United States was caught flat-footed by the surge in demand for medical supplies. If the federal government had enlisted manufacturers earlier, when the virus was beginning to spread throughout the world, GM and other manufacturers could already be producing thousands of ventilators per month.

  • Instead, they're just beginning to ramp up, with significant production volumes not likely until the end of April or later — too late, perhaps, to make a difference in New York or other emerging hot spots.

Where it stands: At a press briefing Friday, Trump said the administration is working with about 10 ventilator companies to increase production, and he named White House trade adviser Peter Navarro to oversee the effort.

  • Over the next 100 days, said Trump, "we will make or get" more than 100,000 additional ventilators.

Trump singled out GM for "wasting time," however, saying he would enforce the Defense Production Act, a wartime measure, to compel the company to "accept, perform, and prioritize Federal contracts for ventilators."

The catch: He's attacking the only automaker that is making significant progress toward ventilator production.

While others like Ford and Tesla are conferring with existing ventilator manufacturers to see how they can help them expand production capacity, GM and a partner, Ventec Life Systems, are already gearing up to make the machines at a GM plant in Kokomo, Indiana.

  • Over the past week, GM and Ventec found global sources for all 700 necessary components in Ventec's multi-function ventilators.
  • Suppliers have been told to gear up for production of as many as 200,000 machines.
  • Unlike a car assembly line, the manufacturing process is fairly labor-intensive. GM plans to deploy 1,000 hand-raisers among its existing employees, and may hire new workers, too.

Between the lines: Trump has been a critic of GM and its chief executive, Mary Barra, for closing plants in the U.S., which seemed to play into his decision to enforce the DPA against GM and no other automakers.

  • While he said GM and Ventec wavered on how many ventilators they could deliver and how much it would cost, his explanation quickly belied his feelings toward the automaker.
  • "I didn’t go into it with a very favorable view," he told reporters Friday. "I was extremely unhappy they left Lordstown, Ohio. I love Ohio," which is an important swing state in the 2020 presidential race. "That would be a good place to build the ventilators."
  • GM sold its former Lordstown assembly plant last year, however, and recently announced plans to open a $2.3 billion battery factory nearby, creating 1,100 jobs.

What's next: After GM-built prototypes are validated and the Kokomo plant is cleared by the FDA — likely by the end of April — the two companies plan to scale up to 10,000 ventilators a month, compared to the 250 per month that Ventec currently produces.

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