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Governor's ventilator order not sitting well with WNY lawmakers, hospital leaders

Flickr/Darren McGee- Office of Governor Andrew M. Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo's executive order mandating the collection of ventilators and personal protective equipment from some upstate hospitals for use downstate drew quick and critical response Friday from several Western New York lawmakers. Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, during his daily COVID-19 briefing, indicated the county hasn't got a ventilator to spare.

(This story was updated 5:15 p.m., Friday, April 3, 2020)

Cuomo announced his order during his Friday morning update on COVID-19 cases statewide. Among the numbers reported were more than 500 deaths in just one day.

One day after declaring the state had an estimated six days' supply of available ventilators, he moved to order the National Guard to round up units, along with other available personal protective equipment, from hospitals not immediately using them for use in places where the need for such equipment is more urgent.

While noting the concerns that would be raised by upstate medical centers, Cuomo promised to either return their devices or financially compensate them.

"Their theory is if the government gets them, they'll never get them back. I understand that," Cuomo said. "But I don't have an option. And I'm not going to get into a situation where we know we're we are running out of ventilators, and we could have people dying because there were no ventilators. But there are hospitals in other parts of the state, that have ventilators that they're not using.

The Erie County Legislature Minority Caucus was quick to issue a statement criticizing the order. Minority Leader Joseph Lorigo told WBFO while the governor has done a "decent" job handling the overall crisis, the order to redistribute ventilators and PPE once again creates a downstate-versus-upstate division in a time when all of the state needs to be prepared.

"The concern is if our peak happens anytime in the next one to three weeks, and those ventilators and PPE are in New York City or Long Island, Erie County residents will be put at risk and possibly die because we don't have the equipment here," Lorigo said. "It's completely irresponsible to seize this equipment from other parts of the state and leave us with none."

During his Friday afternoon briefing, during which he announced a total 802 cases in Erie County and two more fatalities, County Executive Poloncarz said the county's ventilators were all currently occupied and that the county has no strategic stockpile stashed anywhere.

"Ventilators are not going to be taken away from use up here to go downstate," Poloncarz said. "I think the governor noted that there's been an increase in use and hospitalization in ICU in the Buffalo area, so he is aware of this. I know his staff is aware of this. There may be other places in New York State where they don't have the outbreak or the hospitalizations to the same degree we do here. But we need our ventilators and they're not going anywhere. It's as simple as that."

The Erie County Legislature's quick criticism of the governor's order was the first of several statements to be issued by elected officials. State Senator Robert Ortt and several state lawmakers cosigned and released their own letter by Friday afternoon.

Ventilator Letter With Additional Support by Michael Mroziak on Scribd

Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw offered his own thoughts on a video message posted on his Twitter account:

But lawmakers and elected officials weren't the only ones expressing concerns for adequate supplies. Hospital executives also stated their concerns for the local impact of the governor's order.

Jody Lomeo, chief executive officer of Kaleida, offered the following written statement: "Our disaster planning and implementation for the coronavirus over the past 3-4 weeks has been based upon the State’s daily request for preparedness and the expectation that the surge is coming, and in particular, to Western New York.

“We have been following the State’s lead in 'preparation for the apex of the curve.' That, the experts say, is anywhere from 1-3 weeks away. No one knows exactly when it will hit us.

“Our current situation is manageable and our 100% capacity surge plan - at the State’s request - is achievable. This all happening at the same time that we are still taking care of hundreds of other cardiac, stroke, pediatric and emergency patients on a daily basis.“Hoping for no surge here or a promise of reimbursement for ventilators in the future - at time of great uncertainty - would be irresponsible. I cannot jeopardize our workforce and the very patients that we are responsible to care for. “As I have said and will continue to say, we are always willing to help our neighbors, but not at the expense of the community that we are accountable for.

“So today I stand shoulder to shoulder with our physicians, nurses and staff to oppose this executive order that is designed to pit upstate versus downstate. In a time of crisis, we do not have the luxury of spending time on public fights and mandates like this.“Instead, I would welcome and encourage us all to develop a more collaborative plan that doesn’t jeopardize lives and result in further chaos and panic. 

“Of note: I also serve as Chair-elect of the Greater New York Hospital Association, so I am acutely aware of the plight that my colleagues from New York City are currently in. My heart goes out to them. However, our community does not need the real or perceived implications that our supplies and equipment are going to be diverted downstate.

“Moving forward, we will continue to do everything in our power to protect the health and wellness of Western New Yorkers.“We have a responsibility here in this community. We will be helpful where and when we can, but not to the detriment of the hard working staff and the patients that trust us for their care. It’s as simple as that.”

Erie County Medical Center Corporation president and chief executive officer Thomas Quatroche issued his own statement.

It reads: "Over the past several weeks, ECMC, like all other hospitals in New York State, implemented plans and procedures to prepare for a surge of COVID-19 patients. We were asked by the Governor to protect our communities and that’s what we have done. ECMC complied with the NYS Health Commissioner’s 50% surge mandate and prepared further for a potential 100% increase. The Governor’s announced Executive Order regarding ECMC and other upstate hospitals sending ventilators to an unknown destination in metropolitan New York City jeopardizes that plan and will place our patients and community at risk and weaken our preparation for the anticipated COVID-19 surge in Western New York.

“We are concerned for the well-being of our fellow New Yorkers and we want to help as best we can, but we have never received a specific request by anyone in state government as to what was needed and where. We had been working closely with the Healthcare Association of New York State to identify hospitals who may have needed help and we were willing to do what we could as those needs are identified. Before announcing an Executive Order, a solution to work collaboratively and request exactly what is needed would have been a more responsible approach. We believe that other options should be explored immediately, collaboratively, with other healthcare institutions across the state and the NYS Department of Health.

“We continue to have scarce resources – both PPE and equipment – and when the surge comes we need to protect our nurses and caregivers. Most importantly, we need lifesaving resources for our friends, relatives, and neighbors. This Executive Order is not the best approach to ensure their care and safety.

“ECMC sees some of the sickest patients in our community, and as Western New York’s only Level 1 Adult Trauma Center, as well as a vitally important safety net hospital for our region’s at-risk and economically challenged residents, we have always had the ability to treat everyone and save lives, and because of today’s announcement, we are concerned that this ability will be put in jeopardy.”

Michael Mroziak is an experienced, award-winning reporter whose career includes work in broadcast and print media. When he joined the WBFO news staff in April 2015, it was a return to both the radio station and to Horizons Plaza.
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