The 78-year-old man with a chronic heart condition was sitting quietly in his living room in upstate New York when he turned to his wife and said, “Call me an ambulance.”
She rushed him to a nearby hospital, where he endured yet another heart surgery.
Afterward, he was put in a ventilator to maintain his breathing and to give him time to heal.
Sometimes, patients get better. Sometimes, they don’t. In this case, he didn’t.
But his week on the ventilator gave his family time to gather together, to pray and to say goodbye.
Had that hospital not had the ventilator, had it been unavailable because it had been taken away for use at another hospital, the man never would have had any chance at survival. And his family would have never had a chance at closure.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has become a national icon during the coronavirus for two reasons — his air of authority and decisiveness during a crisis, and his demonstration of compassion and commitment to family.
But his decision Friday to use the National Guard to appropriate up to 20% of ventilators and personal protection equipment (PPEs) from upstate hospitals, nursing homes and other facilities in order to treat coronavirus patients in downstate hospitals was not about decisiveness or compassion. It was about power and control.
What choice would these hospitals have but to comply with the order, whether it hurt them or not?
The governor didn’t say he was going to send the Health Department or the Department of Transportation or the Red Cross or UPS to pick up the equipment.
He said he was going to send the National Guard, an arm of the military. That’s more than just offering a way to transport the equipment downstate. It’s a threat.
Do we really want scenes of National Guard troops marching through hospital hallways hunting for hidden ventilators?
Do we really want BlackHawk helicopters landing in hospital parking lots with troops pouring out to confiscate medical equipment?
The governor, in his press conference Friday, gave the impression that upstate hospitals were hoarding their unused ventilators and keeping them from people who really need them downstate.
But as the governor himself has said in reference to President Trump’s accusation that the state had more ventilators than it needed because so many were sitting unused, you have to have them ready and available for when the crisis worsens.
And while the crisis hasn’t enveloped upstate to the degree that it has downstate, that wave is coming soon.
Who’s to say that upstate hospitals that aren’t currently using their ventilators might not suddenly need them for their own patients?
Who knows when a heart patient will be admitted in grave condition and needs one to keep him alive? Or the victim of a stroke? Or someone with COPD or ALS or pneumonia or an upper spinal cord injury?
We’ve seen how quickly a case of coronavirus can accelerate from a mild fever and cough to a life-threatening lung condition.
Since there is little coronavirus testing upstate compared to downstate, there could be a sudden rush of critically ill patients in need of care. And many upstate residents are senior citizens, those considered most vulnerable to the coronavirus.
If a hospital has only five ventilators to begin with and the state takes 20%, that leaves it with just four.
What if four or five people in an upstate county of 50,000 or 60,000 residents check themselves into their local hospital and can’t get the same care that a downstate resident received because that hospital’s ventilator was forcibly taken away?
Or what if upstate hospitals start taking in more coronavirus patients from Westchester and Long Island in order to relieve the pressure on downstate hospitals? How will they care for these patients if the state removes their equipment?
And even if the state promises to return the ventilators when it’s done with them, how long will that be and will it be soon enough to meet the hospitals’ needs?
We understand the governor is panicking, and with good reason. He says the state only has a six-day supply of ventilators and that the coronavirus crisis hasn’t even yet reached its peak in New York.
He doesn’t want to be left with blood on his hands should someone die for lack of a ventilator when there may be ventilators around the state that aren’t being used.
But signing an executive order to seize 20% of upstate health facilities’ equipment won’t solve the problem and might make it worse, at the expense of upstate patients.
Rather than take this drastic step, the state should continue its efforts to get an accurate assessment of inventory and need all across the state.
It should be working more closely with hospital and nursing home administrators to determine where the ventilators and other PPEs are and what equipment hospitals and nursing homes can reasonably spare without jeopardizing their ability to care for their own patients.
Hospitals that do have a surplus of ventilators should be volunteering them now, rather than waiting for the Guard to swoop in.
If it turns out administrators are found to be withholding equipment unnecessarily, then the governor should move to sanction them or seize their operating licenses until they comply.
But threatening upstate hospitals with military intervention at a time when everyone is trying to cope with this crisis the best way they can is an abuse of power that goes beyond the governor’s authority to manage this crisis.
Upstate residents are citizens of New York, too.
The governor should remember that before he takes away the medical equipment they need to survive.