Ventilators assembled by GM and Ventec Life Systems were delivered to hospitals Thursday night with more making their way to facilities today and through the weekend, the first in a 30,000-unit order with the U.S. government.
The deliveries, which went to hospitals in Chicago and Olympia Fields, Ill., are a milestone for the two companies that launched an effort less than a month ago to make thousands of ventilators for hospitals during the COVID-19 pandemic.
GM and Ventec announced a partnership March 20 to help increase production of respiratory care products such as ventilators. The companies had initially focused on making Ventec’s critical care ventilators, called VOCSN, a higher-end multi-function device that includes a ventilator, oxygen concentrator, cough assist, suction and nebulizer. The device, which has more than 700 components, was cleared in 2017 by the FDA.
GM investigated the feasibility of sourcing the materials needed as well as what it would take to build a new clean room and production line within its Kokomo, Ind. factory. GM estimated it would cost about $750 million, a price that included retrofitting a portion of the engine plant, purchasing materials to make the ventilators and paying the 1,000 workers needed to scale up production, the source said. The remaining $250,000 of estimated costs came from Ventec.
The Trump Administration balked at the price tag, putting a contract with the U.S. government in limbo. GM and Ventec planned to push ahead anyway, even as President Trump used Twitter to criticize the automaker and its CEO, Mary Barra. Trump then signed a presidential directive ordering GM to produce ventilators and to prioritize federal contracts, just hours after the automaker announced plans to manufacture the devices.
In spite of the scuffle, GM did reach a $490 million contract with the federal government to produce 30,000 ventilators by the end of August. Under the contract, GM is producing a different critical care ventilator from Ventec called the VOCSN V+Pro, a simpler device that has 400 parts. The other more expensive and complex machine had a multi-function capability.
To speed its ability to build ventilators, the government contract calls for the VOCSN unit with ventilator capability only, according to GM.
Production began this week with one shift of workers and is ramping up. Eventually, GM has plans to add a second and then a third shift in the coming weeks, according to a company spokesperson. More than 1,000 workers will be needed over the three shifts.
To date, 10 ventilators have been delivered to Franciscan Health in Olympia Fields. Another 10 were expected to be delivered Friday afternoon to Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago. A third shipment of 34 ventilators will be delivered Saturday to the Federal Emergency Management Agency at the Gary/Chicago International Airport for distribution to other locations where the need is the greatest, according to GM.
The need for ventilators is urgent as cases of COVID-19 pop up with increasing frequency as widespread testing begins. While some people with COVID-19 reported more mild symptoms, others have experienced severe respiratory problems and need to be hospitalized. The shortage has prompted automakers, including Ford and Volkswagen, to investigate ways of ramping up ventilator production. Ford and GE Healthcare have licensed a ventilator design from Airon Corp and plan to produce as many as 50,000 of them at a Michigan factory by July.
Automakers are also making face masks, face shields and Powered Air-Purifying Respirators (PAPRs) for healthcare workers.