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Despite early fears, a ventilator surplus is likely

WASHINGTON — As requests for ventilators from the national stockpile reached a crescendo in late March, President Trump made what seemed like a bold claim: His administration would provide 100,000 within 100 days.

At the time, the Department of Health and Human Services had not ordered any new ventilators since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January. But records show that over the following three weeks, it scrambled to turn Trump’s pledge into reality, spending nearly $3 billion to spur US manufacturers to crank out the breathing machines.

An analysis of contracting data by The Associated Press shows the agency is now on track to exceed 100,000 by around July 13, about a week later than the 100-day deadline Trump gave on March 27.

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By the end of 2020, the administration is expected to take delivery of nearly 200,000 new ventilators, based on the AP’s review. That would more than double the estimated 160,000 ventilators hospitals had before the pandemic.

“We became the king of ventilators, thousands and thousands of ventilators,” Trump boasted in an April 29 speech.

Over the past month, demand for ventilators has decreased even as the US death toll from the coronavirus has surged past 80,000. After observing unusually high death rates for coronavirus victims who were put on ventilators, many doctors are using them only as a last resort.

That’s raising the prospect the United States could soon be awash in ventilators, so much so the White House is planning to ship thousands overseas to help other nations.

Daniel Adelman, a professor at the University of Chicago who teaches health care analytics, said the government is now buying more than twice the number of ventilators it needs, even under a worst-case scenario for the spread of COVID-19.

“It seems incongruent with the forecasts that you’re seeing,” Adelman said of the government purchases. “I’d probably rather they order too many rather than ordering too few.”

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The Strategic National Stockpile, the government’s emergency reserve of medical supplies, had about 16,660 ventilators at the start of March. But as the pandemic intensified, health officials and governors began expressing concerns that the supply could run out, leaving thousands of critically ill patients gasping for air.

By late March, governors and members of Congress were calling on the president to exercise his emergency authority under the Defense Production Act to force US companies to produce ventilators. Trump had resisted, but on March 27 changed course, announcing he would invoke the act to produce ventilators. Within days, HSS placed about a dozen big orders, mostly no-bid contracts.

In a typical year, US companies produce about 29,000 ventilators. Though several domestic manufacturers had announced they were adding extra shifts and hiring additional workers, it was clear additional industrial capacity would be needed.

On April 8, HHS announced it had a $489.4 million deal with General Motors to produce 30,000 ventilators by Aug. 31. HHS then announced a $336 million contract with Ford and General Electric to make 50,000 more by July 13.

Assuming all the companies meet their deadlines, AP’s analysis shows the stockpile should surpass 100,000 new ventilators by mid-July. The agency will spend more than $2.9 billion for 198,890 ventilators by the end of 2020, an average per-unit cost of $14,618.

Whether that’s a good deal is difficult to determine; device makers generally don’t publish prices. HHS said the government was paying about $12,100 for each unit, and that additional money was for hoses, masks and other related supplies.

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