GM, Ford produce 80,000 ventilators, conclude historic 'arsenal of health' effort

Capping off a historic effort by Detroit's automakers to build ventilators for the national stockpile, General Motors Co. and Ford Motor Co. say they have fulfilled their commitments to manufacture tens of thousands of the breathing machines that have helped save the lives of COVID-19 patients across the country.

The automakers went from producing vehicles to ventilators within weeks as concerns over a shortage rose amid increasing coronavirus cases in March. The "arsenal of health" — named in tribute to the companies' World War II "Arsenal of Democracy" contributions — produced 80,000 of the machines. Although COVID-19 treatment more recently has trended away from intubating patients on ventilators, more than 1,200 from the automakers have been sent to public health jurisdictions in Arizona, California, Illinois, Indiana and Texas, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Brad Carson installs a part inside a ventilator at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Weiss Memorial Hospital in Chicago was at its peak in cases when it admitted Jeff Dickerson on May 11. The intensive care unit was full, and the ventilators the hospital had owned before the pandemic were in use. But the hospital staff was able to put him on a portable ventilator assembled by GM, one of 200 patients who were supported by the devices and continue to be today, said Suzanne Pham, the hospital's associate chief medical officer.

Jeff Dickerson, 62, of Chicago is recovering from COVID-19 after a ventilator assembled by General Motors Co. "pretty much saved my life," he told The Detroit News.

"I was in a lot of pain," said Dickerson, 62, of Chicago. "I couldn't walk. I couldn't breathe. My blood oxygen level when they took it was in the 70s-percent. That's when organs start failing.

"The nurse said there were no other options at the moment. That machine (one of 10 built by GM for the hospital) pretty much saved my life."

After GM and Ford offered their assistance to help the country face the pandemic in March, President Donald Trump used the Korean War-era Defense Production Act for the government to contract with the automakers to supply the equipment that helps patients breathe.

It was "the most rapid mobilization of America's industrial base since World War II," Peter Navarro, assistant to the president and Defense Production Act coordinator, said in a statement.

"In WWII, GM and Ford went from autos to tanks," he said. Against COVID-19, "they have helped turn America into the world’s ventilator king, thereby saving lives both here and abroad in a massive win for the Defense Production Act."

Workers build the first production ventilators at the General Motors Co. manufacturing facility in Kokomo, Indiana, Monday, April 13, 2020. GM and Ventec Life Systems are partnering to produce Ventec critical care ventilators in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

GM on Monday delivered to the national stockpile its 30,000th ventilator in partnership with Washington-based Ventec Life Systems, which is taking over the medical equipment manufacturing operations at GM's electronic components facility in Kokomo, Indiana. GM completed its $489.4 million contract with the government in 154 days. It produced the ventilators at cost.

"Our drive to put critical care ventilators into production was fueled by thousands of people at GM, Ventec and our suppliers who all wanted to do their part to help save lives during the pandemic," Mary Barra, GM CEO and chairman, said in a statement. "It was inspiring to see so many people achieve so much so quickly."

The nearly 100 GM employees who continued to volunteer to build the devices will return to their regular jobs. The nearly 1,000 community members who stepped up to make the machines will be able to continue working under Ventec, which said it will maintain increased capacity in Kokomo and at its Washington plant for as long as needed.

"It's one of the most memorable things I've done in my career here," said Mike Schroeder, an area manager at the Kokomo plant who has been with GM for 25 years and whose wife and daughter work in the medical field. "There was initially a shortage here, but through the work we have done and at other manufacturers, it's restored my belief in the community and that we can do great things here."

Ford, which partnered with GE Healthcare on the effort, on Friday shipped its final, 50,000th ventilator, a company spokeswoman confirmed. The Dearborn automaker had retooled its Rawsonville Components Plant in Ypsilanti to accommodate ventilator production, which began in April after Ford and GE inked a $336 million contract with the government. Ford also produced the devices at cost.

After auto manufacturing restarted in May, following an eight-week shutdown prompted by concerns about the coronavirus spreading in plants, the full-time Ford workers who had been assembling ventilators returned to their home plants and turned the project over to temporary workers. The "majority" of those workers will have the opportunity to transfer to be hired on a full-time basis as Ford ramps up staffing for production of the 2021 Bronco SUV in Wayne, spokeswoman Rachel McCleery said.

Jamie Baxendale packs a ventilator for shipping at Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Detroit's automakers also have produced personal protective equipment such as gowns, masks, face shields and respirators. GM on Tuesday said it will continue to produce face masks and N95 respirators at a facility in Warren for the foreseeable future to support needs in its plants and in its communities. The company has produced 10 million masks with 4.3 million going to hospitals in the state

Damian Durham works on the line building ventilators inside Ford's Rawsonville plant, Wednesday, May 13, 2020.

Ford announced last week that it will deliver 10 million face masks to at-risk communities. The donations are a joint effort by the automaker's philanthropic arm and Project Apollo, the nickname assigned to Ford's pandemic-related projects.

To date, the automaker says it has produced some 75 million pieces of PPE, including more than 19 million face shields; 42 million face masks; 1.6 million isolation gowns; and, in partnership with the 3M Co., more than 32,000 powered air-purifying respirators.

The U.S. Strategic National Stockpile now has 112,000 ventilators and "has not experienced a shortfall of ventilators to support public health and healthcare facilities treating COVID-19 patients," a DHHS representative said in a statement.

And patients like Dickerson, who says he is "98.5%" recovered, are able to return to normal activities like long walks, shopping and using his exercise bicycle.

"I didn't know it was made by GM," Dickerson said. "I just think it is another part of American ingenuity."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

Twitter: @JGrzewlewski