President Donald Trump issued an order Friday seeking to force General Motors to produce ventilators for coronavirus patients even though the automaker had already committed to doing so in a venture with Bothell-based Ventec Life Systems.
Trump’s invoking the Defense Production Act capped a bizarre day in which he attacked GM and CEO Mary Barra on Twitter, questioning the automaker’s ability to deliver promised production levels and accusing it of price-gouging. It wasn’t immediately clear whether Trump’s latest move changes GM’s plans with Ventec.
A person familiar with the plans between GM and Ventec said Trump invoking the act was a “pure political move” and face-saving attempt that changes nothing, given the companies had already announced plans to next week start producing up to 10,000 potentially life-saving ventilators a month for patients with COVID-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
“He has to blame someone because of his administration’s lack of urgency,” said the person, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.
The Korean War-era statute invoked by Trump can force certain American companies to produce materials considered essential during a national emergency.
“Our negotiations with GM regarding its ability to supply ventilators have been productive, but our fight against the virus is too urgent to allow the give-and-take of the contracting process to continue to run its normal course. GM was wasting time,” Trump said in a statement.
Ventec and GM said in an earlier joint news release Friday that their combined supply networks had “developed sourcing plans” for enough of the more than 700 parts to build 200,000 machines if the government needed them. The ventilators will be built at GM’s 2.6-million-square-foot manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, and begin shipping at the end of April.
GM, based in Detroit, will deploy 1,000 of its workers to expand production of the ventilators.
The companies announced their decision to move forward despite the fact that the Trump administration had not committed to a price for the ventilators and pulled back from a previously planned midweek announcement of the venture. In their release, they pledged to ramp up production to a peak of 10,000 a month, “with the infrastructure and capability to scale much further.’’
Before that announcement, Trump on Friday morning blasted the automaker and its CEO on Twitter.
“As usual with ‘this’ General Motors, things just never seem to work out,” he tweeted. “They said they were going to give us 40,000 much needed Ventilators ‘very quickly’. Now they are saying it will only be 6,000 in late April, and they want top dollar. Always a mess with Mary B. Invoke ‘P’.”
A follow-up tweet said that “Invoke P” referred to the Defense Production Act.
Trump had been escalating a war of words with politicians and medical experts who differ with him over how many ventilators are needed. On Thursday, Trump questioned New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s assertions his state needs at least 30,000 ventilators to meet an anticipated onslaught of COVID-19 patients.
“I have a feeling that a lot of the numbers that are being said in some areas are just bigger than they’re going to be,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News host Sean Hannity. “I don’t believe you need 40,000 or 30,000 ventilators. You know, you go into major hospitals sometimes they’ll have two ventilators. And now all of a sudden they’re saying, ‘Can we order 30,000 ventilators?’”
Washington state health officials on Friday could not provide information on the projected need for ventilators and the number currently available.
Beth Zborowski, spokeswoman for the Washington State Hospital Association, said her organization also did not have information on the number and projected need.
“I only have ICU and semi-ICU beds,” she said in an email, referring to 1,685 intensive care beds for critically ill patients and 1,652 semi-ICU beds statewide.
“My understanding is that ICU beds will always have a ventilator and that there may not be a one-to-one ratio of ventilators for semi-ICU beds, but there will be some,” Zborowski said.
She said semi-ICU beds are for patients who don’t need the same level of care as those in ICU, but still need critical care and might be on a ventilator.
It’s possible some hospitals might have more ventilators than they have beds, Zborowski said.
She said it is important to note that numbers of patients on ventilators or using ICU beds will fluctuate, and that other patients suffering from heart attacks, strokes, flu and pneumonia also might require the devices.
“The state is working to get an additional supply of ventilators and there is an effort underway to understand how many ventilators are available, meaning not currently in use,” she said.
A new University of Washington analysis estimates nearly 20,000 patients nationwide will need ventilators to keep them alive when hospitalizations peak. In Washington, the estimate is 236, and it is not clear whether the state will have enough of the machines, according to the hospital association.
The Washington State Department of Health on Friday announced an additional 516 cases and 28 deaths from COVID-19. The newly released numbers bring the total of confirmed cases in Washington to 3,723, with 175 deaths.
Benton, Chelan, Clark, Kitsap, Pierce, Snohomish and Whatcom counties reported new deaths Friday. The bulk of the cases remain in King County, which also reported new cases and has now confirmed 1,828 infections and 125 deaths.
People familiar with the GM-Ventec talks have said Ventec has handled all of the negotiating with the government on price. The joint news release indicated GM was providing its Indiana plant “at cost” to the Bothell company.
The New York Times on Thursday night reported that Ventec sought $1 billion for up to 80,000 of its ventilators. But one person familiar with the talks said $1 billion represents the total amount the government would allocate to all ventilator suppliers, not just Ventec — which would have the direct federal contract, while GM would be the company’s subcontractor. In Ventec’s case, he added, the company had asked for “between $200 million and $300 million” mainly so it could front the cost of ordering parts from suppliers worldwide with unprecedented speed.
GM issued a release immediately after Trump invoked the Defense Production Act on Friday afternoon, stating: “Ventec, GM and our supply base have been working around the clock for over a week to meet this urgent need. Our commitment to build Ventec’s high quality critical care ventilator, VOCSN, has never wavered.”
Ventec’s VOCSN, approved by the FDA two years ago, is a multifunction ventilator, priced midway between the $5,000 for a typical home-care device and $50,000 for top-end intensive care unit (ICU) hospital models. At 18 pounds with a nine-hour battery, it combines five separate pieces of equipment – a ventilator, oxygen source, cough assist pump, suction unit and medication-delivery nebulizer — into one, making it practical for rapid deployment to remote locales or triage centers.
VOCSN’s combined unit also reduces the number of medical personnel needed to manage patients in more confined emergency spaces. A typical ICU device requires a critical care doctor, respiratory therapist and a nurse to monitor multiple pieces of equipment.
“This pandemic is unprecedented and so is the response, with incredible support from GM and their suppliers,’’ Ventec CEO Chris Kiple said in the release. “Health care professionals on the front lines deserve the best tools to treat patients and precision critical care ventilators like VOCSN are what is necessary to save lives.’’
Those familiar with ventilator production and car manufacturing plants say it would be next to impossible for Ventec and GM to deliver 40,000 machines “right away” as Trump’s tweet suggested.
Todd Olson, CEO of Minneapolis-based Twin City Die Castings — supplying about 20 of the parts that Ventec and GM will use — said it will take several weeks before the companies can hit their targeted capacity.
“You can’t go from zero to 10,000 or 20,000 or something like that,” Olson said. “Even General Motors themselves probably couldn’t do it [with cars]. It’s going to take a period probably through the summer to ramp up to maximum capacity. But they’ll make a meaningful difference with units out in I think, a month or two.”
Erik Gordon, a University of Michigan professor specializing in entrepreneurship and technology commercialization — who closely follows GM and the automotive industry — said it would take time to reconfigure the automaker’s assembly line to start producing volumes in the tens of thousands.
“GM is used to very high volume assembly but their plants are custom-built to design particular categories of vehicles,” he said. “So, it isn’t like you can just say ‘Close down this assembly line at the Buick plant on Friday and on Monday we’re going to make ventilators, or toaster ovens or refrigerators.”
One scenario had the companies producing up to 20,000 ventilators a month by August. Reaching 10,000 a month is expected to happen far sooner, possibly by late spring.
“GM is in the position to help build more ventilators because of the remarkable performance of GM and Ventec’s global supply base,” GM CEO Barra said in the release announcing the venture. “Our joint teams have moved mountains to find real solutions to save lives and fight the pandemic.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report.