By David Shepardson and Carl O’Donnell

WASHINGTON/NEW YORK (Reuters) – The Trump administration, under pressure to do more to ramp up coronavirus testing in order to safely reopen the battered U.S. economy, is highlighting this week a $2.9 billion program to build 187,000 ventilators this year.

The administration’s ventilator surge is accelerating as medical experts are forecasting the need for the devices – used to help severely ill COVID-19 patients breathe – will fall. Many of the ventilators will now be sent to other countries in need, the administration says.

Vice President Mike Pence on Tuesday plans to visit a General Electric Co <GE.N> facility in Madison, Wisconsin, where they assemble ventilators, the company and his office confirmed.

On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump taunted critics of his administration’s coronavirus response, tweeting: “Last month all you heard from the Radical Left, Do Nothing Democrats was, “Ventilators, Ventilators, Ventilators.” They screamed it loud & clear, & thought they had us cold, even though it was the State’s task. But everyone got their V’s, with many to spare.”

Ventilators became a symbol in March of the lack of preparedness in the U.S. medical system for the surge in patients suffering from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus that attacks the lungs.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, whose state has been the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak with more than 240,000 cases, had said his state alone could need as many as 30,000 ventilators.

On March 27, Trump invoked the Korean War era Defense Production Act to compel General Motors Co <GM.N> to build ventilators.

“We have so many now that at some point soon we’re going to be helping Mexico and Italy and other countries,” Trump said on Monday. “We’ll be sending them ventilators, which they desperately need.”

Now, governors and business leaders have shifted their focus away from ventilators to the lack of widespread coronavirus testing that medical experts say is necessary to safely end stay-at-home orders and allow people to go back to work.

With the number of New York patients needing intensive care declining, Cuomo said last week he will send some of the ventilators his state received and no longer needs to Maryland and Michigan.

The government’s ventilator buying spree comes as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IMHE) currently forecasts total needs for invasive ventilators at 16,631 units, a fraction of the total the United States plans to buy.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has not broken out how many of the 187,000 ventilators are invasive versions.

Whether U.S. hospitals will need all the ventilators companies such as GM, Ford Motor Co <F.N>, General Electric and Philips <PHG.AS> are now contracted to build will depend on whether the pandemic eases, or gets worse, experts said.

DEMAND COULD STILL RISE Dr. Christopher Murray, the director of IMHE at the University of Washington, told Reuters demand for ventilators could rise sharply “if there is a second wave of infection or an immediate rebound when we take off social distancing.”

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Some states have said they will begin reopening parts of their economies earlier than health experts are recommending.

If the United States maintains social distancing then the planned production of nearly 190,000 ventilators would be “way beyond what we will need,” Murray said.

Either way, ventilator companies are ramping up production to levels way beyond pre-pandemic demand.

Records made public of some HHS ventilator contracts show they were single-source contracts with no competitive bids, which the agency said was due to the urgent need.

Zoll, a unit of Asahi Kasei Group <3407.T> and one of the companies that received an HHS contract, is boosting production by 25 times to 10,000 per month.

Resmed Inc <RMD.N> received a $32 million HHS contract to produce 2,550 ventilators by July 13.

“FEMA was very specific that they only want invasive ventilators,” Resmed Chief Executive Mick Farrell told Reuters, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is directing the ventilator program.

“FEMA is building up these ventilators as a backstop,” added Farrell, who called the agency’s production target reasonable.

“If you look at Germany, they had 50,000 ventilators for a population of about 80 million,” Farrell said, noting that would mean the United States could need 200,000 given its much larger population. “I think FEMA was looking at models from Germany and France and then maybe added a buffer on top of that to play it safe.”

Trump on Saturday said the United States will send ventilators to Mexico after a discussion with his Mexican counterpart. “I told him we’re going to be helping him very substantially,” Trump said.

Hill-Rom <HRC.N>, which also got an HHS contract and makes non-invasive ventilators, has increased its production by five times its pre-pandemic levels and predicted it could be months before the health crisis is over.

“The idea is not only to make sure we in the U.S. but also around the world have them God forbid something like this should ever happen again,” Hill-Rom spokesman Howard Karesh said.

(Reporting by David Shepardson in Washington and Carl O’Donnell in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

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