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Intensive care room with ventilator (right). Photo: Ronald Bonss/picture alliance via Getty Images

Automakers and their parts suppliers are offering to produce desperately needed ventilators to keep coronavirus patients alive, but quickly retooling industrial factories to make precision medical equipment might not be feasible, despite the good intentions.

Why it matters: The U.S. faces a critical shortage of medical equipment to fight the disease, including ventilators that help patients breathe as well as protective gear, such as masks, gloves and gowns, for health care workers.

The big picture: The auto industry has virtually shut down in North America for deep factory cleanings, and if and when they'll resume production isn't clear.

  • Unionized auto workers at GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler are worried about contracting the virus on the assembly line and are working with the companies to restructure work shifts to mitigate the risk.

Driving the news: In a call Wednesday to inform the Trump Administration of the shutdown, GM CEO Mary Barra told White House Economic Adviser Larry Kudlow that GM wanted to help and was studying how it could potentially support production of medical equipment like ventilators.

  • That news prompted a similar statement from Ford, and later, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted, "We will make ventilators if there is a shortage."

What's happening: The Toronto-based Automotive Parts Manufacturers' Association is enlisting tool and die companies and parts suppliers to adapt their manufacturing plants on both sides of the border to produce medical supplies.

  • "Their response has been overwhelming ... Just get us the specs," APMA President Flavio Volpe told the CBC.
  • The shift to medical supplies would be easy enough to do, he said, and they could convert back to automotive manufacturing quickly.

Yes, but: Pivoting to wartime footing for ventilators is not like churning out tanks, planes and ships for World War II, says Sandy Munro, CEO of Munro & Associates, an expert in lean manufacturing who has intimate knowledge of both the auto and medical device industries.

  • Production of medical devices requires sterile rooms with much higher standards than those required in a "clean room" at an automotive paint shop, for example, he says.
  • The Food and Drug Administration would have to validate any new facilities, a process that can take up to 180 days, explains The Huffington Post.
  • The technicians who manufacture ventilators also require eight to nine months' training, says Munro.
  • "Medical devices are intricate machines on which people’s lives depend. Every step of the production process has to be precise. This isn’t just a box with an air hose on it."
  • Nor is it clear that auto workers who were afraid of infection making auto parts would feel any safer going back to produce ventilators.

One of the biggest challenges is securing components, especially the disposable, single-use tubes and masks made of highly specialized medical-grade materials, experts say.

  • Most are manufactured outside the U.S. — in Costa Rica, Japan, South Korea and China, says Munro.
  • The virus has slowed production in many parts of the world, and even where factories are producing, shipping is complicated by a drastic reduction in cargo carriers and air freight.

What to watch: The federal government could clear many of these hurdles, especially if it activates the Defense Production Act, which would mobilize private industry to assist in "national defense."

  • It could provide federal help in the form of loans, faster regulatory and customs processes and even the chartering of planes and ships to deliver components more quickly.

Go deeper: At war with no ammo’: Doctors say shortage of protective gear is dire (NYT)

Go deeper

Updated 32 mins ago - Politics & Policy

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

Photo: Stephen Maturen via Getty Images

The House voted 220 to 212 on Wednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Senate Republicans plan to exact pain before COVID relief vote

Sen. Ron Johnson. Photo: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Republicans are demanding a full, 600-page bill reading — and painful, multi-hour "vote-a-rama" — as Democrats forge ahead with their plan to pass President Biden's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package.

Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

The new grifters: outrage profiteers

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

As Republicans lost the Senate and narrowly missed retaking the House, millions of dollars in grassroots donations were diverted to a handful of 2020 congressional campaigns challenging high-profile Democrats that, realistically, were never going to succeed.

Why it matters: Call it the outrage-industrial complex. Slick fundraising consultants market candidates contesting some of their party’s most reviled opponents. Well-meaning donors pour money into dead-end campaigns instead of competitive contests. The only winner is the consultants.