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NYC mayor pleads with Elon Musk to start producing ventilators

Kirsten Korosec

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made a direct plea to Elon Musk, asking the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX to produce ventilators to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.

Updated below with comment from mayor's office. 

The mayor's tweet came out of a discussion on Twitter that began Wednesday evening between Musk and Nate Silver, the author and editor-in-chief of @FiveThirtyEight.

Musk, who has in the past downplayed COVID-19 in emails to employees and on social media, tweeted Wednesday evening that Tesla "would make ventilators if there is a shortage." Silver responded, noting that "there's a shortage now, how many ventilators you making?"

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Musk later noted that "Ventilators are not difficult, but cannot be produced instantly. Which hospitals have these shortages you speak of right now?" His question prompted a flurry of responses from media, public healthcare officials and lawmakers, including Rep. Julie Fahey, who said that there are 688 ventilators in the state of Oregon.

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De Blasio tweeted out the plea Thursday morning. "Our country is facing a drastic shortage and we need ventilators ASAP — we will need thousands in this city over the next few weeks. We're getting them as fast as we can but we could use your help!"

The mayor's office has reached out to the person who runs Musk's family office, his communications director and his lobbyist, press secretary Freddi Goldstein told TechCrunch in an email. "Given his response on Twitter, we’re hopeful he will be able to help," Goldstein added.

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Musk's tweets and emails to employees regarding COVID-19 have been met with criticism from some within the healthcare, media and business communities who argue that his attitude downplaying the disease will cause more harm.

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Musk has also come under criticism for keeping Tesla's Fremont, Calif., factory open despite its location in Alameda County, which is currently under a shelter-in-place order. The order requires all non-essential businesses to close, including bars, gyms and dine-in restaurants because of the global spread of COVID-19.

Tesla’s factory and a number of its other facilities are located in and around Fremont, which is within Alameda County. On March 17, the Alameda County Sheriff declared that Tesla's factory is "not an essential business" and the company should follow the shelter in place directive.

In an internal email sent to employees Wednesday, Tesla said it would continue to keep its Fremont factory open for production, because it has had "conflicting guidance from different levels of government" over whether it could operate during a shelter in place order in Alameda County.

The human resources department told employees to come to work if their job is to produce, service, deliver or test its electric vehicles, in spite of the order.

CNBC reported that the Fremont city officials plan to meet with Tesla factory managers on Thursday to discuss cooperation with the county’s order. As of Thursday morning, the Fremont factory was still open.

However, another email sent late Wednesday evening reiterated that while the factory was open for "essential" employees, the company would be taking additional steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

This latest email, which has been viewed by TechCrunch, informed workers at the Fremont factory that Tesla will hand out masks to be worn throughout the day, take temperatures prior to entry, add more hygiene stations inside the facility, rearrange operations to promote social distancing as much as possible and increase cleaning frequency of all work areas.

Critical shortages

Automakers, including GM and Ford, have reportedly already been in talks with the White House to repurpose factories for the production of critical medical equipment.

Ventilators are not the only pieces of medical equipment that hospitals are scrambling to secure. N95 respirators are also in short supply.

The White House said it has been in discussion with manufacturers of the N95 industrial masks that are considered a critical safeguard for healthcare workers. Vice President Mike Pence said Thursday during what has become a daily press conference on COVID-19 that 3M increased its production capacity to 35 million masks per month, beginning in January.

"We're seeing a dramatic increase in production," Pence said.

Honeywell is also increasing production to 120 million masks per year. The production increases haven't reached many of the thousands of U.S. hospitals facing shortages. There have been widespread reports of dwindling supplies of masks, as well as other protective gear.

Pence said construction companies are also responding to the White House request to donate their N95 masks to hospitals.