Coping With COVID-19: Trump Tantrum Causes Some To Back Away From Ventilator Push

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On Wednesday, March 18, as the full dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic were becoming increasingly clear, Rachel Romer Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, and Kenneth I. Chenault, the chairman of venture capital firm General Catalyst who is also a former CEO of American Express, penned an op-ed piece for The New York Times calling on corporate executives to join the fight against the pandemic. Some 1,500 corporate executives have since signed a letter pledging to help. The pair also created Stop The Spread, a website that calls on business leaders to lend a hand in the fight against the pandemic.

On Thursday, March 19, Mary Barra, CEO of General Motors, got a call from a representative of Stop The Spread asking GM to help Ventec — a small manufacturer of medical ventilators — to increase its monthly production from 200 units to 10 times that number. The New York Times has verified the contents of the call with 4 people.

Ventec ventilator
Image credit: Ventec Life Systems

Not all ventilators are the same. The Ventec VOCSN model is about the size of a large toaster oven and combines the functions of several machines. Approved by the FDA in 2017, in not only pumps air into the lungs, it also suctions out secretions, and produces its own oxygen when an oxygen supply line is unavailable. It is most often used in critical care hospital units but can also be used for home care.

The same day, General  Motors and Ventec began working together to figure out how to quickly boost production. On Friday, March 20, Phil Kienle, GM’s head of manufacturing for North America, and a few other executives, flew to Ventec’s headquarters in Bothell, Washington where they sat down with people from Ventec to learn how the ventilators are made and what parts are required.

What GM brought to the table was its worldwide network of parts suppliers. Working through the weekend of March 21, GM began contacting its suppliers, looking for anyone who could provide the parts that go into the Ventec ventilators quickly and in large volume. It also called in workers to begin clearing out a recently idled GM factory in Kokomo, Indiana that made electrical components for cars. That factory has the kind of clean room facilities necessary to manufacture ventilator components.

Over the next few days, GM and Ventec began making plans to set up an assembly line at the Kokomo factory and hire hundreds of workers. “We continue to work around the clock on our efforts with Ventec,” GM said in a statement. “We are working as fast as we can to begin production in Kokomo.”

“I’m pretty amazed at what they’ve done,” Kristin Dziczek of the Center for Automotive Research tells the New York Times. “But automotive production involves a massive supply chain, and G.M. has risen to the occasion on other big manufacturing challenges.” Within a matter of days, GM said it had identified suppliers for 95% of the parts needed to produce the Ventec VOCSN ventilators.

Tyrant Trump Tweets

On Friday, March 27, Donald Trump unleashed one of his patented Twitter attacks on Mary Barra, General Motors, and anyone else he could think. Using lots of capital letters to emphasize how upset he was, he reamed Barra and GM repeatedly.

Then there was this gem.

Then Tyrant Trump decided to cram it down their throats by invoking the Defense Production Act — a little used federal law enacted during the Korean War — to force GM to build ventilators. How’s that for leadership, huh? This is the jackass America has chosen to lead it through a crisis? It calls to mind the popular bumper sticker that says: “The beatings will continue until morale improves!”

Since then, most people involved with the GM/Ventec project have gone dark, afraid to speak publicly lest the Great and Powerful Trump should vent his spleen on them. All of the sources for The New York Times article declined to be identified. Here’s a tip for you, Dumb Donald. The Lordstown factory you are so exercised about was sold last November. If you are going to stamp your foot and spew bile all over the place, at least get your facts straight. And before you call anyone else stupid, take a look in the mirror to see what stupid really looks like.

The problem would appear to be FEMA, which is supposed to be coordinating the purchase of urgently needed supplies to meet the COVID-19 crisis. According to The New York Times, two people familiar with the talks say Ventec never received a confirmation from the government about which machine it was interested in acquiring, how many it wanted, or how much it was willing to spend.

FEMA, of course, was terrified of upsetting the Blowhard in Chief, so it blamed everything on GM and Ventec. This is the kind of snafu you get when you don’t know how to manage effectively. If you don’t know what snafu means, look it up. What is happening inside the Trump maladministration is like the “Off with their heads!” scene in Alice In Wonderland.

A source at Stop The Spread tells The New York Times that, thanks to our Dear Leader, two corporate executives have backed away from getting involved for fear of incurring the wrath of the Cheap Executive. Rather than making it easy for people to get involved, the Trumpenator has strewn boulders in their path.

Ventec Responds

On March 30, Chris Kiple, CEO of Ventec, told NBC News, “We provided the government with a range of options, ranging from a thousand units a month to 21,000 units a month and a whole host of pricing that went with that. So we gave the government a menu of options to present and just tried to respond to their request for information to say how many can you produce and how fast.”

Somehow the word went up the communication chain that Ventec and GM wanted a billion dollars or more for their ventilators, a figure that might be accurate if the government said it wanted 21,000 units a month for an extended period of time. But the government never said exactly what it wanted and so the message got distorted and Trump flew into a rage — something he does about 14 times a day. Now Ventec says it is going about its business and will supply the US and global markets.

“We plan to be producing together over 1,000 units by the end of April and of course with GM’s talent and skill, we’ll be ramping up to 3,000, 5,000 and 10,000,” Kiple said. “This is really an unprecedented activity that GM and Ventec are in to mass produce a ventilator with an auto-manufacturer. The commitment from GM has been overwhelming.”

“We are going to continue to manufacture them where the need arises,” Kiple added. “Whether it’s the federal government, the state governments, hospitals, medical professionals on the frontline, there is a need here not just in the United States but around the world and General Motors and Ventec Life Systems will rise to meet that demand and as soon as that demand isn’t there, we’ll lessen our production.”

In other words, “Shut up, Donald, and let us do our job.” There is a world of difference between being a real business executive and playing one on TV.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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