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Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV intends to convert a plant in China to make and donate face masks for first responders and health-care workers in the United States, the automaker confirmed Sunday.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic comes after President Donald Trump on Friday invoked the Defense Production Act that allows the government to call upon private businesses to address defense needs. Experts have expressed concerns over a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care workers, ventilators and other medical equipment because of the respiratory illness. Several automakers have said they are looking to help.

Fiat Chrysler CEO Mike Manley in a letter to employees over the weekend revealed the company's plan, indicating that conversations on converting one of the automaker's plants to make the masks would begin Monday.

"We are working through the protocols to start production in the coming weeks and ultimately produce over a million face masks per month to donate to first responders and health care providers," he wrote.

The company has chosen a plant in China, spokeswoman Shawn Morgan said in a statement, because "the fastest way we could get relief to U.S. first responders and health care workers was to use one of our operational plants."

Last week, the automaker agreed to suspend production at its plants in North America following an outcry among the rank-and-file and pressure from labor unions. U.S. plants, however, could start producing the masks once they are back up and running, Morgan indicated.

The move would not be unprecedented: Chinese automaker BYD earlier this month had ramped up new production lines to make 5 million face masks and 300,000 bottles of disinfectants per day. A task force of 3,000 engineers brought the proposal from research and development to manufacturing in just two weeks.

Fiat Chrysler also is working with ventilator manufacturer Siare Engineering International Group in Italy, the epicenter for COVID-19 in Europe. FCA's engineers and manufacturing teams along with Ferrari are helping to more than double Siare's productivity, Manley wrote.

General Motors Co. on Friday said it was partnering with Ventec Life Systems to help the Washington state-based ventilator manufacturer boost production of the machines. The Detroit car maker is offering its logistics, purchasing and manufacturing expertise.

Ford Motor Co. also has said it is researching the feasibility of building ventilators and other devices following discussions with the U.S. and U.K. governments.

And after expressing doubts last week that Tesla Inc. could make ventilators in time to help with the pandemic, CEO Elon Musk on Saturday tweeted he had met with Medtronic about ventilators. The company also ordered 50,000 N95 masks and other supplies for UW Medicine, the health system at the University of Washington.

"We expect to have over ~1200 to distribute this week," Musk wrote on Sunday in response to a question about ventilators. "Getting them delivered, installed & operating is the harder part."

Trump on Sunday encouraged the companies' efforts: "Ford, General Motors and Tesla are being given the go ahead to make ventilators and other metal products, FAST!" he wrote. "Go for it auto execs, lets see how good you are?"

bnoble@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble

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