Update (3/24/20): This post has been edited with a further explanation of how Betsy McCaughey likely obtained her numbers from the 2015 state task force report.
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been one of many governors appealing to President Donald Trump to use emergency powers under the Defense Production Act to order industries to produce ventilators and other needed supplies for the coronavirus crisis. Just today, Cuomo railed against a promise from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to send 400 ventilator units to the state despite the need for thousands more, thundering at his daily press conference: “You pick the 26,000 people who are going to die because you only sent 400 ventilators.”
But during today’s town hall special on Fox News, Trump held up what he claimed was a report of how Cuomo had negligently failed to buy ventilators for his state years ago — and now the governor was supposedly the one setting up “death panels” for the state’s patients:
Neither of Fox’s purported “news”-side anchors in this special, Harris Faulkner or Bill Hemmer, asked Trump to identify exactly what he was talking about or prove the “death panels” charge. In a later segment in the afternoon, Fox chief political anchor Bret Baier commented that Trump had taken that moment to “push back and say the governor could’ve ordered ventilators,” without going into any further details on the specific charges about a number of ventilators or the charge of setting up “death panels.”
However, a review of the actual facts and reports shows that it does not at all appear that there was ever some proposal for Cuomo to buy the number of ventilators he would now need in this extraordinary emergency — and furthermore, Trump has brought this claim up from some of the most disreputable corners of right-wing media.
Judging by the phrasing of Trump’s claim, it appears that he was grabbing this claim directly from the perennially inaccurate right-wing website The Gateway Pundit, which put up a post two days ago with the same headline that Trump read on Fox.
The Gateway Pundit’s post was in turn based on a recent syndicated column by Betsy McCaughey, the former Republican lieutenant governor of New York in the 1990s who also recently appeared in a Fox Nation documentary to declare that “political venom” over Trump's coronavirus response is “more worrisome” than mass panic. (She was previously a frequent right-wing media source for the health care reform debate during the Obama administration and one of the primary pushers of the “death panel” lie.)
Now, in McCaughey’s telling, it’s Cuomo who’s sending a “death officer” to the hospital wards:
After learning that the state's stockpile of medical equipment had 16,000 fewer ventilators than New Yorkers would need in a severe pandemic, Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to a fork in the road in 2015. He could have chosen to buy more ventilators. Instead, he asked his health commissioner, Howard Zucker to assemble a task force and draft rules for rationing the ventilators they already had.
That task force came up with rules that will be imposed when ventilators run short. Patients assigned a red code will have the highest access, and other patients will be assigned green, yellow or blue (the worst) depending on a "triage officer's" decision. In truth, a death officer. Let's not sugarcoat it. It won't be up to your own doctor.
Cuomo could have purchased the additional 16,000 needed ventilators for $36,000 apiece or a total of $576 million in 2015. It's a lot of money but less than the $750 million he threw away on a boondoggle "Buffalo Billion" solar panel factory. When it comes to state budget priorities, spending half a percent of the budget on ventilators is a no brainer.
Now the pandemic is actually here. Cuomo's grim reaper rules will be applied.
The New York Times’ report on the state’s ventilator shortage includes some key facts missing from McCaughey’s narrative. To start with, this state task force to study complex medical care issues was not freshly formed at Cuomo’s behest in 2015, but has actually been around since 1985. Secondly, its report issued in 2015 was itself the product of years of study of the state’s health care infrastructure, not a sudden request by the governor.
McCaughey appears to have formed her own narrative based on the following paragraph in the task force’s report:
New York State has stockpiled 1,750 ventilators to help reduce ventilator need in the face of the moderate scenario; however, there are no current plans to buy enough ventilators for the most severe model. The State’s current approach to stockpiling a limited number of ventilators balances the need to prepare for a potential pandemic against the need to maintain adequate funding for current and ongoing health care expenses. Furthermore, severe staffing shortages are anticipated, and purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be a sufficient number of trained staff to operate them. In the event of an overwhelming burden on the health care system, New York will not have sufficient ventilators to meet critical care needs despite its emergency stockpile. If the most severe forecast becomes a reality, New York State and the rest of the country will need to allocate ventilators and other scarce resources.
There are also no mentions in either the task force’s report or the Times’ article about an alleged “chance” to purchase 16,000 ventilators, or what the price would have been. Moreover, a search for key terms in the report does not appear to even indicate what the magic number of appropriate units for the state to generally own might be — only a listing of what the state did have available, and an acknowledgment that this would not be enough for the most severe pandemic models.
What the report did contain was this: In a “moderate” flu pandemic model — similar to the outbreaks of 1957 and 1968 — the state would have a projected surplus of 572 ventilators in a peak week of demand. But in a “severe” pandemic model, based on the 1918 flu, there would be a projected shortfall of 15,783 ventilators in a peak week of demand. It appears that McCaughey seized upon this latter figure, while also jumbling up the timeline of how this was even determined in the first place. (Indeed, as shown above, the report also acknowledged the reasons why a state couldn’t just own such a large number of ventilators on a regular basis.)
It also seems quite odd for right-wing media and politicians to be bringing back the “death panels” lie — at the same time as many of them (including The Gateway Pundit) are trying to convince the public to let the coronavirus run rampant through society, rather than continue the lockdowns and government economic controls.