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Automakers explore making ventilators. Could it work?

a ventilator with tubes coming out of it
Adobe Stock Images

As cases of the novel coronavirus surge in Michigan and nationwide, Ford and GM have been talking with the federal government about possibly re-tooling some plants to make ventilators.

Both automakers temporarily suspended production this week due to the coronavirus. Now, they’ve confirmed that they’ve talked with the government about switching production to ventilators and other medical equipment.

A small percentage (models suggest around 1%) of patients with COVID-19 require ventilators to keep them breathing. And as the number of confirmed cases grows daily, hospitals and some government officials have raised alarms about the U.S. running short.

But Jonathan Cohn, a reporter for The Huffington Post, talked with experts about this, and he’s skeptical that automakers could quickly make the switch.

Cohn says ventilator manufacturers—including some in the U.S.—are already ramping up production, “and they expect to do more.”

But Cohn said making ventilators is a complex process that requires precision parts, sourced from all over the world.

“It’s complicated,” Cohn told Michigan Radio’s Stateside on Thursday. “These machines are complicated, the process of building them is complicated, shipping…I mean, every step of the way has its challenges.”

For that reason, Cohn is skeptical about transitioning large auto plants into ventilator-makers. “The way to ramp up production is to have the companies that are already doing that, that know how to do this, just do more,” Cohn said.

But that has its challenges and limitations, too. Cohn said the feeling among experts is there are “ways to ramp up production significantly in a reasonably short amount of time.” But that amount of time would likely be months, which may be after U.S. hospitals are overwhelmed with critically ill COVID-19 patients.

There is no central database that tells us how many ventilators U.S. hospitals have in stock. Worldwide ventilator production had been running around 50,000 a year.

However, Cohn said there is a government stockpile with an unknown number of ventilators—but those reserves are unlikely to meet the demands of a full-blown pandemic. And Cohn said as many as 100,000 older ventilators may be laying around hospitals and warehouses across the country, and could serve as a “makeshift solution” if things become dire.

But Cohn said the bottom line is that the federal government must step up to increase ventilator production—by doing things like making guaranteed purchases, easing parts of the regulatory process, financing and providing shipping, and making sure resources are directed where they’re most needed.

Cohn said ideally, this should have been done weeks or months ago. And despite some vague indications from the White House, “it’s hard to figure out if the government is doing any of this.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.