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Pentagon turns focus toward making masks, ventilators

Manufacturing ventilators and N95 respirator masks is now at the top of the Defense Department’s to-do list, according to a briefing Wednesday by the Pentagon’s head of acquisition.

Collaboration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) will steer contracts with defense firms in the direction of much-needed medical equipment and personal protective gear needed in the fight against COVID-19, Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord said.

Still, despite setting a new manufacturing azimuth, equipment that has been so desperately needed for weeks potentially remains over a month away from landing at hospitals and with medical professionals on the front lines. The delay, Lord said, was the result of Pentagon officials not being briefed by collaborating organizations on what equipment should be prioritized.

“We are working as smartly and quickly as we can, in close coordination with the Hill, state governors and the defense industrial base, to do everything we can to support our military members, their families, defense contractors and our fellow citizens,” Lord said.

The Pentagon’s effort has yielded the Joint Acquisition Task Force, which will “synchronize the DOD acquisition response to this crisis, working closely with all the services and defense agencies,” Lord said.

This task force will receive instruction from FEMA, the Department of Homeland Security, the HHS, and various other agencies on which equipment should be manufactured. Based on those recommendations, the Pentagon will then outsource contracts with companies to make the best and most expeditiously designed equipment.

“There are great ideas coming out, from 3D printing to other things,” Lord said. “I’m looking at alternative materials for N95 masks versus what has been traditionally been used. ... We have been primarily focused on ventilators and respirators, but there’s also test kits that have been looked at, swabs” and more.

The Pentagon’s effort comes amid announcements that various American companies have taken up the call to produce critical medical supplies. Assembly lines at Ford, General Motors, and Tesla, for example, have all promised the production of ventilators and masks to stem the tide of the pandemic.

Redirecting defense contracts, meanwhile, is reportedly being managed under the Defense Production Act, a law that enables President Donald Trump to redirect industrial production and allocate goods and services to FEMA and the HHS. The law also is designed to prevent the American public from hoarding medical necessities.

Despite the diversion of military resources, Lord insisted the U.S. military remains “ready and capable of meeting all of our national security requirements.”

“Everyone’s very, very committed.”

One day after Lord’s comments, the Navy announced it would be sidelining the carrier Theodore Roosevelt and it’s 5,000-person crew in Guam after a number of sailors tested positive for COVID-19.

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