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The return of erratic Elon Musk: During coronavirus, Tesla CEO spreads misinformation and over-promises on ventilators

Musk’s shipments of BiPAP machines continued a pattern of over-promising and under-delivering, all while being the loudest voice in a crisis

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk speaks before unveiling the Model Y at Tesla's design studio in Hawthorne, Calif., last year. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk promised to ship more than 1,000 ventilators to hospitals around the country last month — and pledged that Tesla would start pumping out its own version of the devices as soon as possible.

Many of the machines he sent were continuous or bi-level positive airway pressure machines, noninvasive devices used for patients with sleep apnea who have trouble getting air in their lungs, according to some of the hospitals that received them. They can aid in coronavirus treatment but typically don’t work for the sickest patients unless they are converted into more advanced machines.

Tesla engineers showed off a prototype ventilator in early April 2020 that founder Elon Musk said will be supplied free to U.S. hospitals. (Video: Reuters)

Although hospital executives said they were grateful for the mechanical reinforcements bought by Tesla, the shipments continued a pattern by Musk of brash proclamations on Twitter with mixed results on follow-through. Since the coronavirus started to spread, he has peddled the drug chloroquine before clinical tests and questioned the ongoing need for shelter-in-place orders — while touting his own relief efforts. One coronavirus-related YouTube video he tweeted was removed because it violated the company’s guidelines.

On Tuesday, he posted articles alternately saying “bravo” to Texas for reopening. He said in another tweet, “Give people their freedom back!” and wrote in a subsequent post “FREE AMERICA NOW."

The comments prompted criticism from officials including U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who wrote in a tweet “Billionaires want to continue profiting off your labor even if it means risking millions of lives.” The Pennsylvania Treasury Department’s Twitter account also criticized Musk, writing “You may look up to him, but he’s only looking down on you.”

Meanwhile, Musk’s team earlier this month posted a YouTube video showing a new ventilator crafted out of Tesla car parts, including an infotainment screen from the Model 3 sedan, with no further plans detailed.

Similar behavior landed him in trouble in 2018, when he took to Twitter to offer help in rescuing a boys’ soccer team from a Thai cave and offered a mini submarine. The boys were ultimately saved by a team of Thai scuba divers. Musk called a volunteer a “pedo guy,” landing the executive in court with a libel suit, although he was later exonerated. It was the same year Musk and Tesla were each ordered to pay $20 million fines in a Securities and Exchange Commission fraud settlement after Musk tweeted that he had “funding secured” to take the company private at $420 a share.

“As long as Elon Musk continues to produce amazing products and add tens of billions of dollars of shareholder value, he will continue to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us,” said Scott Galloway, a professor at the New York University Stern School of Business and a Musk critic. “Is it the errant missives of an eccentric billionaire? Or is it dangerous? And the answer is yes and that it is.”

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Tesla did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Musk didn’t reply to an email seeking comment.

In response to media scrutiny of the purchases of bi-level positive airway pressure machines, also known as BiPAP or BiPap machines, Musk on Twitter cited the British tabloid the Daily Mail in arguing that there was “mounting evidence that invasive is suboptimal” for treating patients.

Musk is chief executive of Tesla, the electric vehicle company that has been on a tear this year, more than tripling its share price since October. He is founder and CEO of aerospace firm SpaceX, which has taken on lucrative government contracts and ultimately aims to put humans on Mars.

As Tesla reports earnings Wednesday, investors and analysts expect the company to provide a glimmer of hope amid a string of disappointments. Tesla said earlier this month that it logged record first-quarter performance with its production and deliveries.

Dan Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, wrote in an earnings preview that Tesla exceeded Wall Street’s tempered expectations with its delivery of 88,400 vehicles in the first quarter, sounding a note of “clear optimism” from Tesla’s cheerleaders “as Musk and his red cape yet again did not disappoint.”

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Gene Munster, an investor and managing partner of Loup Ventures, said the company’s stock rallies can help assuage shareholder concerns regarding recent Musk communications.

“It’s uncomfortable because it’s tone deaf and that needles at investors’ questions about fitness as the CEO,” he said. “But at the end of the day, he’s created a massive amount of value and investors are going to look the other way.”

But Musk’s actions stand in stark contrast with those of some of his more traditional auto rivals. Both Ford and General Motors raced earlier this month to transform production lines to make ventilators, winning government contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars. The companies acknowledged that the vast majority of ventilators would ship after the peak need, but said they were motivated in part by a sense of patriotic duty.

“We will make ventilators if there is a shortage,” Musk tweeted March 18, the same week General Motors started exploring whether it could produce invasive ventilators through a partnership.

Musk also made isolated ventilator pledges to officials including New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) and California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D).

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By the end of March, Musk said he’d get a New York factory to produce ventilators “as soon as humanly possible.” Tesla had yet to say by late April whether the factory had been mobilized.

In early April, the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation estimated that 32,000 ventilators would be needed for a mid-April peak, and the government had only about 10,000 stockpiled.

Tesla demonstrated a prototype made of car parts on video around the same time. But the company never answered questions about whether it could go into production, and the peak of the ventilator demand appears to have passed, according to projections from the University of Washington.

The Washington Post contacted U.S. hospitals Musk named in a partial list of facilities that received device shipments from Tesla. Most did not respond. Among those that did, hospitals confirmed receiving either BiPAP or CPAP machines or ventilators, but did not specify the type. The facilities in California, Illinois, New York and elsewhere said they were thankful for the help.

Tesla unveils ventilator prototype made with car parts on YouTube

“Cedars-Sinai has received 40 BiPAP machines from Tesla. We are very grateful to Mr. Musk for this generous gift,” Duke Helfand, a spokesman for Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, said in a statement. “BiPAP machines offer a noninvasive way to help patients breathe by pushing pressurized air into their lungs. This equipment can be useful as part of the overall pool of resources that will help us as we plan for a potential surge of COVID-19 patients in the weeks ahead.”

Still, an informational page from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine said that the “BiPap may not be a good option if your breathing is very poor.“ Meanwhile, The Washington Post has reported that such machines can pose an additional risk because they emit air when patients exhale, potentially exposing others to the virus.

The controversy around ventilators is part of the broader barrage of tweets on coronavirus the billionaire has posted since the crisis began.

In early March, Musk called the coronavirus panic “dumb.” Then as it came to be widely understood that hospitals would face a deficit of ventilators, he asked a journalist: “Which hospitals have these shortages you speak of right now?” A day later, replying to another tweet, he wrote that “kids are essentially immune” to the coronavirus. (Health experts have said that is not the case.)

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He wavered on whether his company’s factory, in Fremont, Calif., needed to shut down as shelter-in-place orders took effect across the state, only to back down after local officials and law enforcement authorities stepped in. Initially, workers were being given masks and having their temperatures taken at the door. Musk told employees in an email that they were free to stay home if they felt uncomfortable but that he would be reporting to work.

Just this weekend, he shared a link questioning whether hospitals were classifying seriously ill patients as coronavirus-positive and placing them on ventilators to wring more money from federal programs. He applauded a YouTube video that suggested social distancing and quarantines reduced immunity to the virus and that explicitly advised against society continuing to shelter in place.

“We quickly remove flagged content that violate our community guidelines, including content that explicitly disputes the efficacy of local healthy authority recommended guidance on social distancing that may lead others to act against that guidance,” YouTube spokeswoman Ivy Choi said in a statement, explaining the decision to remove the video. “From the very beginning of the pandemic, we’ve had clear policies against COVID-19 misinformation and are committed to continue providing timely and helpful information at this critical time.”

Last Friday, media outlets reported that Tesla asked dozens of workers to return to the job Wednesday, signaling that the company was ready to fire up its production lines. By Monday, according to CNBC, the company abruptly reversed course and told workers to stay home.

Charles D. Lindsey, associate professor of marketing within the University at Buffalo, said Musk misstepped in promising medical supplies while Tesla faced a hobbled supply chain. He advised Musk to better manage expectations.

Musk’s other error, he said: weighing in on matters far beyond his realm of expertise.

“The medical statements, that’s not helpful at all,” he said, calling the situation “unfortunate.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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