ALBANY — Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Friday gave his administration power to redistribute ventilators and personal protective equipment — the essential tools of the fight against COVID-19 — from upstate New York hospitals to downstate hospitals.
New York City-area hospitals are struggling to treat the onslaught of patients ill with the virus — more than 96,000 are confirmed infected and more than 10,000 hospitalized in and around the city. Meanwhile, upstate hospitals have cleared the decks and emptied their wards to be ready for a surge that hasn’t arrived yet.
“I’m not going to get into a situation where we're running out of ventilators and people are dying because there are no ventilators but there are hospitals in other parts of the state that have ventilators that they’re not using. I’m just not going to allow us to go there. I think it would be wholly irresponsible,” Cuomo said during his Friday-morning briefing.
“I’m going to sign an executive order that says the state can take ventilators and PPE from institutions that don’t need them now and redeploy them to other parts of the state and other hospitals that do need them.”
The state is home to more than a third of the nation’s COVID-19 cases and nearly half the fatalities.
Through his daily briefings, Cuomo has been a steady, reassuring and widely admired fixture during the crisis, avoiding politics and personal attacks as he focuses on the state doing the most it can so that as few of its residents die as possible.
He is, however, the same governor described as bullying and controlling through most of his ten years in office.
Friday’s executive order was the evolution of a weeklong effort to promote sharing that apparently failed to gain traction.
On Monday he said a new command center would inventory the supplies of every hospital in New York so that purchases and distribution could be done efficiently.
On Tuesday he said: “Let’s pool our supplies and let's put them out for the people who need them.”
On Thursday he said: “We have a central stockpile. We are asking all the hospitals to contribute what they have to that central stockpile, and then we will disburse on a need basis.”
At Friday’s briefing, he announced the executive order, with few details other than the state would be taking and the National Guard would be distributing.
Asked by a reporter how many ventilators he’d seize from upstate New York, and how he’d decide when the situation was bad enough upstate to start bringing ventilators back, Cuomo objected.
“First of all, don’t use the word ‘seize,’ I didn’t use that word, it’s a harsh kind of word,” he said. “It’s a sharing of resources.”
Cuomo did say the upstate hospitals could ask for the equipment back when the situation got rough. He’d either send it back or reimburse the upstate hospitals for its cost.
Asked by another reporter if he worried about hospitals suing him, Cuomo said: “If they want to sue me for borrowing the excess ventilators to save lives, let them sue me.”
He said he’s confident he’d prevail in court.
His office could not provide the wording of the executive order Friday afternoon. But a top aide later clarified that Cuomo was “asking upstate hospitals to loan 20 percent of their unused ventilators to struggling downstate hospitals.”
Albany Medical Center had not commented publicly all week on whether it would answer Cuomo’s repeated calls to give any of its equipment to the state for redistribution. CEO Dennis McKenna confirmed Friday the hospital had not done so and said he’s not eager to do so now. Albany Med it is already rationing N95 respirator masks and is caring for 45 COVID-19 patients, almost half of them in intensive care units.
"We’ll do whatever we’re required to do,” he said Friday, not having seen the executive order and unable to comment on specifics.
The retired U.S. Navy doctor and veteran emergency department specialist offered an analogy: Better to get patients out of an overcrowded emergency room by moving them throughout the hospital than to bring extra hospital staff into the emergency room.
“We’ve always said, ‘We’re here, we’re available, it makes more sense to us to bring people up here,’” McKenna said. (Albany Med has accepted 20 COVID transfer patients from overwhelmed Queens hospitals this week.)
Other Capital Region medical leaders gathered at Albany Med an hour after Cuomo’s briefing made similar points.
“When we take that ventilator out, that goes all by itself to the other hospital,” said Dr. David Liebers, chief medical officer of Ellis Medicine. “It doesn’t come with PPE, it doesn’t come with trained staff, it doesn’t come with a respiratory therapist.”
He said Ellis has only as many ventilators as it would need under currently projected models. Nonetheless, “We’ll do what we have to do based on the state emergency plan, there’s no question about that.”e
Cuomo’s move made varying impressions on the Capital Region’s representatives in Congress.
U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R, Schuylerville, the only Republican of the three, said: “The North Country comprises the largest number of seniors of any Congressional District in New York state, the most vulnerable age group to COVID-19. Our critical needs and vulnerabilities must be considered. North Country hospitals reached out to my office with this specific concern earlier this week — our rural hospitals are already very limited in resources and we must ensure Upstate New York’s needs for testing supplies and ventilators are fully met. I am committed to working through these concerns with both Republican and Democrat upstate officials, our hospitals, and county public health offices.”
U.S. Rep. Antonio Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, said: “I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure folks in our region have every single thing they need to get through this health crisis. That is my priority.”
U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko, D-Amsterdam, said: “Understanding that this is a state and national crisis, we must all work together to overcome this pandemic and be guided by a clear strategy that guarantees the protection of New Yorkers and Americans, regardless of geographic location. I’ve heard from many frontline healthcare professionals in our Capital Region who are either currently without, or will soon be without, adequate PPE, which is deeply concerning and unacceptable. While I understand ensuring that patients in New York City and the surrounding region who need ventilators today receive them, the same process must be applied for patients in the Capital Region in need tomorrow.”