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John Nichols: Madison machinists are working 24/7 to build life-saving ventilators

John Nichols: Madison machinists are working 24/7 to build life-saving ventilators

Making life saving machines in Madison (copy) (copy)

Lilian Mattila, a worker at the GE Healthcare Life Care Solutions plant, 3030 Ohmeda Drive, assembles a mechanical respirator that will become part of an anesthesia machine.

“Every ventilator we get off the end of our line and out of our building is saving a life,” said Trevar Smedal, who works at Madison’s GE Datex-Ohmeda manufacturing plant, where production has ramped up and shifts have been added so that assembly of the life-saving equipment can continue around the clock.

As the number of confirmed coronavirus cases increases, nurses, doctors and governors across the country are echoing the passionate language of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo when he speaks of the “critical and desperate need for ventilators.”

Studies from China determined that, when the outbreak was at its peak there, roughly 5% of patients went into intensive care and 2.3% required the ventilator devices that pump oxygen into the lungs until people have recovered sufficiently to breathe on their own.

“Now imagine 2.3% of the perhaps millions of Americans who are expected to become infected with COVID-19 over the next three months,” explained Daniel M. Horn, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital. “There simply will not be enough of these machines, especially in major cities.”

That terrifying prospect has given Smedal and his fellow members of International Association of Machinists union Local 1406 in Madison a sense of mission.

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“The term ‘this is a wartime situation’ has definitely flown around our plant quite a bit,” explained the 30-year-old Stoughton native, who has been pulling 12-hour shifts since February without a day off. “We are not going to shut our doors. When everybody else is out there really stressing out about what’s going to happen in the future, we can’t really dwell on that — because we got to get this stuff done. We’ve got to show up every day, and get as many of these machines out to the people all over the world.”

The Machinists union and the AFL-CIO have circulated a brief video of Smedal as part of an effort to highlight the role union workers have played in addressing the coronavirus outbreak. Looking into the camera, he tells an anxious America, “Just keep up the faith. I know that my coworkers, we’re going to show up every day and we’re going to get out as many as we can.”

“They are literally saving lives,” said Machinists international union president Robert Martinez, Jr., who referred to the workers at the GE Datex-Ohmeda plant in Madison as an “inspiration to all of us in a time when the whole world needs to be joining together in solidarity to tackle this pandemic.”

Solidarity is vital. With it goes an understanding of the sacrifices workers are making when they leave the safety of their homes to provide essential service.

The battle to get ahead of the coronavirus curve is so serious, and so demanding, that the list of working-class heroes grows with each passing day. Nurses and doctors are on the front lines. With them stand respiratory therapists, technicians, assistants, janitors, cooks, and all the other workers who are keeping hospitals going amid the overwhelming challenge that we are asking them to take on. The Senate’s “phase three” response to the pandemic includes $100 billion in funding for hospitals. That aid is critical. But there’s more, much more, to be done to keep health care workers safe on their jobs.

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The Senate proposal authorizes trillions in new spending, with substantial outlays to sustain transit systems and local governments — and to keep working families afloat. Now, federal, state, and local officials need to make sure not just that the money allocated for this fight is spent well and wisely, but that the resources are coupled with a commitment to protect and support the people who are on the job even as communities shut down.

Workers will do the rest. They are stepping up to save lives, working in demanding circumstances for long hours — often with little notice. But we must notice their show of solidarity.

“People will start to burn out and it will be hard to continue it, continue the upswing of production,” Smedal said as he described his work on the ventilator line. “That’s kind of where being in a union, being brothers and sisters, comes into play. We kind of keep each other motivated — make sure people are staying healthy, getting enough to eat, getting enough sleep.”

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Recalling the reference to “a war-time situation,” Smedal explained, “My sister, for example, she’s a doctor in Cincinnati — so you can say she’s definitely on the frontlines right now. I guess I’m kind of in the background putting the machines together.”

On the day we spoke, Trevar told me his sister had called to tell him about hooking a young patient up to a ventilator.

Trevar Smedal’s sister is a hero. So is he.

John Nichols is associate editor of The Capital Times. jnichols@madison.com and @NicholsUprising. 

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