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As ventilator shortage looms, Medtronic will double production

Experts seem to agree the U.S. could face a ventilator shortage, so companies are ramping up production.

MINNEAPOLIS — Although the numbers are difficult to quantify, public health experts seem to universally agree that the United States, like Italy, may eventually face a devastating shortage of ventilators as the coronavirus pandemic rages across the globe.

"Ventilators are to this war," Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said, "what missiles were to World War II."

With one study estimating about 160,000 ventilators in the U.S. -- far short of the projected demand in the coming weeks and months -- Cuomo and other elected officials have called on the federal government to act. Specifically, they have urged President Donald Trump to use powers derived from the Defense Production Act, which he invoked in an executive order last week, to convert private companies into powerful manufacturers of critical medical supplies like ventilators.

Facing pressure from some in the business community and harboring his own reservations about the "nationalization" of the economy, President Trump has not issued any orders yet.

But some companies, including Twin Cities-headquartered Medtronic, have decided to ramp up production themselves to meet skyrocketing demand.

"This is an unprecedented time, and an unprecedented human challenge that we're confronting here," Medtronic's Rob Clark told KARE 11 in an interview. "We are lodging and mobilizing an unprecedented response."

Medtronic projects to double production and supply of ventilators this year at its facility in Galway, Ireland, where the company makes "PB980" and "PB840" ventilators that could save COVID-19 patients' lives by assisting their breathing. By bolstering and transferring staff to Western Ireland, the facility will also operate on a 24-7 basis.

Other companies, including GE Healthcare, have committed to similar increases.

"All manufacturers, not just Medtronic... are working hard to ramp up production," Clark said. "To double and triple capacity wherever they can."

Elon Musk, the CEO of Tesla, has also expressed a desire to join the ventilation production game. He tweeted over the weekend that he had a "long engineering discussion with Medtronic about state-of-the-art ventilators." 

Although neither company has shared details about the nature of those conversations, Medtronic appears open to collaborating with other companies during this time of crisis.

"Companies like Tesla, and others, have a lot of expertise and a lot of capability," Clark said. "They're saying -- how can we help? What kind of capability can we bring to any part of the supply chain to help? And we welcome that."

At the same time, producing a ventilator is no easy feat. 

One of Medtronic's products, for example, requires more than 1,700 individual parts, and the assembly process can be lengthy and time-consuming. For this reason, it is unknown how quickly companies like Tesla, Ford or GM might be able to contribute to ventilator production. 

Hoping to speed the process, the Food and Drug Administration lifted some restrictions this week to "help increase availability of ventilators and their accessories as well as other respiratory devices during the COVID-19 pandemic."

The FDA's action is a clear sign that hospitals may soon desperately need ventilators, just as they need masks and other supplies. According to the Minnesota Hospital Association, the state's Department of Health is currently collecting information about ventilator stock and capacity, but no hard numbers have been provided at this point.

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"What I can say is that hospitals and health systems are working to acquire additional ventilators and equipment that can be used in a surge of patients," MHA's Wendy Burt said in an email. "So these numbers are also in flux as we speak."

As Burt and the MHA note, production is just one aspect of the potential ventilator shortage. By heeding the advice of government officials to stay home whenever possible, the public's ability to "flatten the curve" could prevent the hospital system from reaching overload. 

"The longer we can prevent a surge," Burt said, "the more time hospitals have to build up supplies, replenish supplies and prepare for a surge."

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