No Timeline for 1st Order of Emergency Ventilators, Top Pentagon Buyer Says

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A biomedical equipment specialist conducts depot-level maintenance on a ventilator.
A biomedical equipment specialist conducts depot-level maintenance at Tobyhanna Army Depot, Penn., on a ventilator as the Army supports COVID-19 response efforts. (U.S. Army/Ellen Crown)

The Pentagon's top acquisition official couldn't say for sure Wednesday whether a single contract has gone out to the defense industry to produce ventilators desperately needed by hospitals nationwide in the battle against the novel coronavirus.

"I will check. I believe we have [begun the contracting process for ventilators]. I will have to check on that," Ellen Lord, under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said at a Pentagon news conference. "We are working on procuring more ventilators right now. We have multiple companies that are standing up capability to do that right now."

However, she added, "We are still working through the business arrangement" for the companies to produce ventilators. "Everyone's very, very committed [to the task]."

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"We actually have contracts in place" that could be used to send out orders for ventilators, Lord said, "[but] it's a question of whether or not the supplier can deliver against them."

The department is further along in the process of getting defense companies involved in the production of N95 respirator masks, which are also in short supply, she said, adding that the first priority is to distribute masks already in Pentagon stockpiles.

"There are great ideas coming out" of industry for producing masks, "from 3D printing to other things," Lord said. "I'm looking at alternative materials for N95 masks versus what has been traditionally been used."

At the news conference, Lord and other defense officials, using a blizzard of acronyms, described a complicated bureaucratic process for mobilizing the Defense Industrial Base to combat COVID-19.

Last Friday, President Donald Trump issued an executive order to invoke the powers of the Defense Production Act (DPA), which allows the federal government to order industries to produce products deemed necessary for national defense.

However, Lord said the Defense Department's use of DPA against coronavirus would also depend upon "demand signals" coming from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Health and Human Services.

"Once we get clarity on the demand signals, we will execute," she said. "I know [coronavirus] has been here for several weeks, but this coordination at this level just started on Friday."

Trump signed the executive order March 20.

"Our first action was to make sure that we have a system in place" to ensure companies directed to produce medical supplies had guidelines on deliveries and when they would be paid, she added.

To speed the process, "I have established a Joint Acquisition Task Force. We call it the JATF, another DoD acronym," Lord said. "If we do not have a system with clear roles and responsibilities, how information flows, how money flows, how we are going to really leverage our adapted acquisition framework, we will descend into a very uncoordinated state."

In the last week, said Jennifer Santos, “we have recalibrated aspects of our mission to identify ways to partner with industry as we jointly navigate the challenges brought by the COVID virus."

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

Read more: The Latest on the Military's COVID-19 Response

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