WASHINGTON — Despite increasing coronavirus cases in the U.S., the Pentagon’s top weapons buyer on Wednesday sounded a note of confidence that defense companies would remain open throughout the winter and keep weapons production on track.

“I am concerned about that — as we see within [the Defense Department] — the number of [COVID-19 positive] individuals still are increasing in industry,” Ellen Lord, the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, said during the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics’ Ascend conference.

However, she added she doesn’t anticipate another wave of facility closures.

“We’re very hopeful that all of the steps that industry took during the pandemic — to space out [production] lines, to do telework, to find ways to comply with all the CDC regulations — that those have really prevented severe cases and the need to shut down,” she said, using an acronym for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“So I’m optimistic that although cases are going up, industry is going to continue to be very resilient. And we will continue at pretty impressive productivity rates,” she added.

At the height of the pandemic earlier this year, almost 700 defense companies shut down operations in the hopes of quelling the spread of the virus. By June, that number had decreased to 33 businesses, according to data from the Defense Logistics Agency and the Defense Contracts Management Agency

Currently, only one of those companies remains closed, Lord said.

However, the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has been trending upward in the country since the end of September, with a high of almost 195,000 new cases reported Nov. 12, according to CDC data.

But there is cause for hope: On Wednesday morning, Pfizer announced that phase 3 trials of its vaccine showed it was 95 percent effective in preventing the virus, and the company could seek emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration within days, CNN reported.

During the conference, Lord was asked whether defense contractors would get priority access to COVID-19 vaccines, given the defense industry’s status as an “essential” business sector during the pandemic.

“I don’t have the answer to that,” she said. “That’s being sorted out right now in the White House.”

Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.

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