In mid-March as the coronavirus was spreading across America and states were sending all but essential workers home, Ford CEO Jim Hackett shuttered the company’s 30 North American auto plants. On the phone with White House staff to talk about the impact of the pandemic on the industry, Hackett blurted out: “Who knows, maybe we should be making ventilators?”
Five days later, the company had a plan to do just that. Ford and GE Healthcare quickly agreed to try and crank up production of a simpler version of GE’s full-featured machines to help hospitals and states that were preparing for a deluge of COVID-19 patients. They then brought on a small Florida manufacturer called Airon, whose own simplified ventilator would be cheaper, easier and faster to produce in massive quantities. “When this problem happened, it became really clear that we have a responsibility here,” Hackett says.
He’s not alone. Across the country, American manufacturers–including Ford, General Motors and Xerox–whose factories in normal times are humming along with more prosaic products, are racing to churn out new ventilators by the tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, as fast as they possibly can. In fact, it’s the largest combined effort by American manufacturers outside of wartime to do in weeks what would normally take medical device makers months or even years to produce.
“There are a limited number of manufacturers of ventilators, and each one of those manufacturers works on just-in-time manufacturing,” says Airon vice president Pamela Fry. “It’s not like any manufacturer has 100–let alone 100,000–ventilators in stock.”
Ventilators, which force air and oxygen into the lungs of patients who can no longer breathe on their own, are the kind of medical device that no one wants to need. But for those who are critically ill with COVID-19 and in the country’s intensive-care units, there’s no good alternative. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimates that hospitals will need nearly 17,000 ventilators within days to meet the pandemic’s peak in mid-April. States like New York where COVID-19 cases are overwhelming hospitals had previously raised the alarm about potential ventilator shortages in the tens of thousands. The U.S. had about 160,000 ventilators at acute-care hospitals before the pandemic, according to an April report by the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security based on 2010 data, including 62,000 full-featured machines and another 98,000 that could provide basic function during an emergency.