By Manas Mishra

(Reuters) – General Electric’s healthcare unit said on Thursday it will hire more people and increase the number of shifts as it races to produce ventilators round-the-clock to meet the surge in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

The rapid spread of the illness, which has killed more than 8,900 people, has strained healthcare systems around the world and led to a shortage of ventilators needed to treat critically ill patients suffering from the flu-like virus, which can lead to breathing difficulties and pneumonia in severe cases.

Running in the thousands of dollars per unit, ventilators are high-tech versions of the “iron lungs” that kept people alive in the 1950s during fierce polio epidemics.

Hospitals in the United States are preparing for a surge in patients as the outbreak worsens, and a recent government analysis showed the majority of hospitalizations were among people aged between 65 and 84 years.

U.S. President Donald Trump said on Wednesday he was invoking a wartime act to speed up production of masks, ventilators and other related equipment.

“As the global pandemic evolves, there is unprecedented demand for medical equipment, including ventilators. We continue to explore all options to support this increased need,” GE Healthcare’s Chief Executive Officer Kieran Murphy said.

GE did not disclose how many additional ventilators it expected to produce or the number of people it plans to hire.

The company said it had increased its manufacturing capacity for other equipments besides ventilators, including CTs, ultrasound devices and mobile X-ray systems. GE Healthcare was also shifting current employees and working with suppliers to mitigate shortages.

Other companies including Medtronic have announced similar plans to ramp up production capacity.

General Motors and Ford have said they are in talks with White House officials about how they could support the production of medical equipment.

Tesla Inc CEO Elon Musk on Wednesday offered to make ventilators in case of a shortage in the United States. Elsewhere, companies such as Apple supplier Foxconn have refitted production lines to make masks and similar items.

In Britain, the government has asked manufacturers including Ford, Honda and Rolls Royce to help make health equipment and said it would look at using hotels as hospitals.

Earlier this month, GE forecast the virus outbreak would wipe out a substantial chunk of its industrial free cash flow in the first quarter, but stuck to full-year financial targets it had set in January.

(Reporting by Manas Mishra in Bengaluru; Editing by Saumyadeb Chakrabarty and Shounak Dasgupta)