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‘We just want to help’: Spokane Valley-based manufacturer offers to make much-needed ventilators

UPDATED: Tue., March 24, 2020

The Keytronic plant, at 4424 N. Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley, is shown Tuesday. The company has offered to produce ventilators during the coronavirus outbreak. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Keytronic plant, at 4424 N. Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley, is shown Tuesday. The company has offered to produce ventilators during the coronavirus outbreak. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Craig Gates oversees 5,000 employees who could be put to work making medical devices desperately needed in the country right now, and he took to social media Monday to trumpet that fact.

“We can be up and running building ventilators quicker than the automotive guys,” Gates, chief executive at Spokane Valley-based KeyTronic, wrote in his first tweet ever Monday, tagging President Donald Trump and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. “Tweet me back.”

The plan, suggested by a niece who’s an engineer at General Motors, worked.

Gates said Tuesday he’s been in contact with the state’s Department of Enterprise Services about the possibility of KeyTronic, a contract manufacturer, producing parts or the entirety of ventilators.

Those devices help a patient breathe during the type of respiratory failure that’s a symptom of COVID-19.

The company, founded in 1969, is based on Sullivan Road in Spokane Valley, but has facilities in Texas, Arkansas, Minnesota and Mississippi, as well as in Mexico, Vietnam and China.

KeyTronic’s legal representation is reaching out nationally to see if the firm can help supply providers in other parts of the country, Gates said. The demand has been most acute in New York, with Gov. Andrew Cuomo making a plea to the Trump administration to provide an additional 30,000 devices for the expected surge of patients in the coming weeks.

“There is no other way for us to get these ventilators,” Cuomo said at a news conference in New York on Tuesday morning. “We’ve tried everything else. The only way we can obtain these ventilators is from the federal government. Period.”

Shortly afterward, Gates tweeted again. This time at Cuomo, offering KeyTronic’s services.

The firm needs specifications for devices before they can begin mass production, Gates said in an interview. KeyTronic already has authorization from the Food and Drug Administration to produce medical equipment, and is currently under contract with at least 70 companies to manufacture goods that include slot machines and infrared thermometers.

Gates said KeyTronic would be capable of producing entire ventilators, but the company might be better positioned to provide component parts for the devices as companies seek to ramp up production of the breathing devices.

A firm in Bothell announced earlier this month it was increasing its monthly output of the machines from 150 to 1,000 to meet demand, and Ford Motor Co. is working with GE to build the devices as well.

“That would be the quickest way we could help, I think, is if somebody had a production pinch-point on a part, or set of parts, or some assembly,” Gates said.

Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s chamber of commerce, is also conferring with local manufacturers to see if any could pivot to production of needed medical supplies as the nation prepares for a potential wave of hospital admissions, said Cara Coon, vice president of communication and public affairs for the chamber.

“We are working with (the) Commerce (Department) to identify other help,” Coon said in a phone message Tuesday morning. “But I don’t have a list for you right now.”

Some, including Cuomo, have called for the Trump administration to invoke what’s known as the Defense Production Act, to require manufacturers of other products to shift operations to produce medically necessary equipment.

Peter Gaynor, administrator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Tuesday that language from the act would appear in contracts for additional supplies, including masks and test kits.

Producing ventilator equipment wouldn’t require a “strategic shift” in KeyTronics’ operations, Gates said. He wanted governments to know the company was willing, and able, to handle demands for breathing-assisted devices when he sent the tweet.

“I would not say that I anticipate it,” Gates said. “We just want to help.”

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