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Defense industry to make coronavirus masks, ventilators — but will it be fast enough?

Tara Copp and Michael Wilner, McClatchy Washington Bureau on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- The Defense Department has begun signing contracts with defense firms to ramp up production of ventilators and N95 respirator masks in short supply around the country, but the medical equipment may not reach hospitals before coronavirus cases peak in the next few weeks, the Pentagon's head of acquisition said.

"We will strive to do everything we can before June, but we have no data to address that now," Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said Tuesday at a media briefing at the Pentagon.

The hastened production is being managed under the Defense Production Act, a law that gives the president authority to protect critical national defense supplies by allowing him to prioritize contracts or provide loans, grants or other economic incentives to accelerate their production.

Through the DPA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Federal Emergency Management Agency will identify what items are needed and then the Defense Department, through its vast connections with defense industries, will place and manage orders.

But only a few contracts have been executed so far.

Over the weekend, HHS signed a contract with five firms to produce N95 respirator masks, and the Defense Department, under its DPA authority, will now work with those vendors to be able to produce the masks quickly and in large quantities, Pentagon spokesman Air Force Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said.

 

Asked why the ramp-up for mask production was so late in coming, when the Pentagon had known about the severity of the pandemic for weeks, Lord said the Pentagon had not yet been directed by HHS or FEMA on what were the specific needs.

"They have to give us the demand signal," Lord said. "Once we get clarity on the demand signal we'll execute. If you'll recall, FEMA just got the lead role on Friday."

"This is all very new," she said. "I know COVID has been here for several weeks, but this coordination at this level of detail just started on Friday."

Likewise, the military's top medic was questioned Tuesday as to why the Defense Department had not obtained more machines to process test kits for deployed forces and get a better picture of the virus's spread among the military. Although the overall numbers among the 1.3 million active duty are still small, they are quickly climbing, from 49 coronavirus cases on March 18, to 227 on Wednesday.

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