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A Desperate Governor In Desperate Times

Andrew Cuomo coming out of a New York City subway elevator.
photo of N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo by Marc A. Hermann, courtesy MTA New York City Transit

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is a desperate man – desperate to save his state’s residents from an Italian-style collapse of its health care system and accompanying epic loss of life.

Cuomo is not a chief executive who uses language loosely, or one prone to wander into verbal cul-de-sacs. Watching his press conferences, viewers are hard-pressed to know if he is reading prepared remarks using a teleprompter or just saying what is on his mind. Either way, Cuomo speaks in clear sentences, presents his arguments in sequence, and constructs his case like a polished lawyer and politician – both of which he is.

But being fluent is not the same as being logical, and desperate people are seldom logical. Though his tone stayed measured, Cuomo sounded almost panicked earlier this week as he demanded that the federal government rescue New York state and New York City from impending calamity.

New York has recorded about half the nation’s confirmed cases of COVID-19, and about one-third of the national death toll from the coronavirus-induced disease. On Tuesday, when the state’s confirmed cases numbered around 25,000 (about 15% of which require hospital care), Cuomo told New Yorkers to expect a peak of around 140,000 cases requiring hospitalization in the next several weeks. By that point, he said, roughly 30,000 patients will need intensive care, including support with mechanical ventilators. As of Tuesday, the state had been able to procure around 7,000.

“You cannot buy them,” Cuomo told reporters, as he sat in front of pallets of supplies the state has assembled in New York City’s Javits Center, a convention hall soon to be turned into an emergency hospital. “You cannot find them. Every state is trying to get them. Other countries are trying to get them. The capacity is limited. They’re technical pieces of equipment. They’re not manufactured in two days, or four days, or seven days, or 10 days. ... The only way we can obtain these ventilators is from the federal government. Period. And there’s two ways the federal government can do it. One is to use the federal Defense Production Act.”

The law Cuomo cited would allow the federal government, in theory, to order companies to produce needed equipment and supplies. However, as Cuomo immediately pointed out, such an order would not be fast enough. “We’re looking at an apex of 14 days,” Cuomo said. “If we don’t have the ventilators in 14 days, it does us no good.”

In other words, having just acknowledged that companies that are not in the business of building intensive care ventilators cannot do it overnight, Cuomo immediately demanded that President Donald Trump order such companies to do it – overnight. The only thing this demand might accomplish is to give Cuomo someone to eventually blame for the shortfall. In other contexts, I might suspect such a political motive, but not in this case. I attribute Cuomo’s lapse of logic to stress, overwork and a likely lack of sleep.

“Also, the federal government has 20,000 ventilators or thereabouts in the federal stockpile,” the governor went on. “Release the ventilators to New York. How can we be in a situation where you could have New Yorkers possibly dying because they can’t get a ventilator, but a federal agency saying, ‘I’m going to leave the ventilators in the stockpile’?”

Anyone who is not from New York could answer that question pretty easily. While New York may have the greatest near-term need for those ventilators, it does not need them yet. And 49 other states, numerous territories and dependencies, and a far-flung military and overseas civilian workforce all could need those ventilators pretty soon, too. Many American localities, especially in rural areas, have a thin medical infrastructure. Federal hospitals serving veterans and Native American communities may have nowhere to look for ventilators apart from the federal reserves. Just across the Hudson River from where Cuomo was speaking, New Jersey has moved into the number two spot in COVID-19 cases in America. Cuomo would leave no reserve ventilators from the federal government for New Jersey, or anyone else.

The governor is right to observe that the pandemic is hitting New York earlier and harder than anywhere else in the country, now that his state has overtaken Washington and California. But his description of deploying the stockpile of ventilators in different places as they’re needed seems, at best, simplistic. When other states need the ventilators that the federal government has allocated to New York, especially if New York is still using them, can we realistically expect New York to give them up?

Cuomo wants other Americans to sacrifice every available resource and work around the clock (forget effective social distancing in this impossible scenario) to rescue his state. His request is understandable. But it is not reasonable.

New York’s governor commands a state government workforce totaling nearly 180,000 full-time employees. Most of them are not involved in critical functions and could, in theory, be deployed to produce equipment and supplies needed in New York. But it is not practical to expect anyone to marshal those resources effectively in the way Cuomo was demanding, and certainly not by executive fiat from the governor’s office. It would not do any good to have such directives come from the White House, aimed at ill-prepared private companies, either.

By yesterday, the governor appeared to be somewhat more settled. The pandemic numbers were just as bad; New York’s confirmed caseload had increased by about 20% overnight to around 30,000 cases, mostly in the metropolitan area, and the peak was still projected to be 140,000. But in the intervening time, federal help in locating ventilators, protective gear and hospital beds had been forthcoming. New York’s own resources were also being marshaled, in the form of vacant dormitory and hotel beds. The state’s medical community had volunteered 40,000 retired and nonhospital workers to provide services in those ad hoc facilities when called upon. Cuomo even acknowledged the point federal officials made, that the Defense Production Act is usually more useful as a way to induce voluntary action from the private sector than as a way to mandate performance of assigned functions.

There are likely to be many more anxious moments and sleepless night ahead, for Cuomo and his fellow New Yorkers – and across America and overseas, too. Almost every conceivable resource is being thrown into the fight against the coronavirus in New York and around the globe. New Yorkers may be famously unfamiliar with much of America, but every American appreciates New York’s importance. Nobody is about to abandon it.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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