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Cuomo backs off plan to take unused ventilators from upstate hospitals

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has backed off a plan, announced four days ago, to take unused ventilators from upstate hospitals and bring them to Covid-19 hot spots downstate. The plan drew bipartisan opposition in Western New York.

Cuomo told reporters recent donations and acquisitions brought in enough ventilators to New York City for now, and a group representing the state's large hospital systems said any redeployment of ventilators from upstate hospitals to downstate facilities would happen voluntarily.

Cuomo on Tuesday signed the executive order he announced on Friday. It includes language saying the state health commissioner "may shift" materials from a hospital that doesn't need them to one that does, but it does not mandate this action and makes no reference to Guard troops taking the equipment.

"The (Department of Health) shall either return the inventory as soon as no longer urgently needed and/or, in consultation with the Division of the Budget, ensure compensation is paid for any goods or materials acquired at the rates prevailing in the market at the time of acquisition, and shall promulgate guidance for businesses and individuals seeking payment," the order states.

The state did not seize any breathing machines from upstate hospitals and doesn't plan to do so anytime soon, state officials said Tuesday.

The order properly balances the needs of all of the state's hospitals and should reassure health care workers battling the Covid-19 outbreak on the front lines here, Kaleida Health CEO Jody Lomeo said.

"Having a collaborative inventory plan ensures that personal protective equipment and supplies are available for everyone, regardless of geography," Lomeo said in a statement Tuesday. "And they only move when an urgent need arises or an apex occurs."

Cuomo on Friday announced his intention to sign the executive order, saying New York City-area hospitals were in desperate need of ventilators and other life-saving equipment while upstate hospitals had machines to spare. Ventilators are in short supply in New York's hot spots because so many Covid-19 patients require assistance breathing to stay alive.

He provided few details on how the program would work, except to say the National Guard would remove and transport the equipment.

Cuomo spokesman Richard Azzopardi later on Friday said upstate hospitals would be asked to loan 20% of their unused ventilators to their downstate counterparts. On Saturday, Cuomo put that figure at 500 ventilators available throughout upstate.

The announcement caught officials at Western New York and upstate hospitals by surprise. Local health care leaders and elected officials, with a few exceptions, objected to the plan and said they had received little information on how it would work.

The chiefs of Kaleida Health and Catholic Health, the region's two largest hospital systems, along with Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, said the Buffalo Niagara region needs all of the ventilators it has.

The proposal also generated false reports on social media over the weekend that Guard troops already seized ventilators and other equipment from local hospitals.

"That is not happening," said Eric Durr, a spokesman for the New York National Guard. "And, again, you should ask the governor’s office for the explanation of what the program will be. We will do whatever we are directed to do by the executive chamber."

Negotiations among state leaders and hospital officials continued over the weekend.

Spokespeople for the governor and the state Health Department on Tuesday did not directly respond to questions on the program's status and, instead, referred reporters to Cuomo's recent remarks.

"As the governor explained (Tuesday), we’re not currently redeploying those 500 available ventilators at this time because we are now receiving 2,500 ventilators we weren't expecting," Erin Silk, a Health Department spokeswoman, said in an email.

At his Tuesday news briefing, Cuomo was asked about his plan to move ventilators from upstate hospitals to downstate hospitals.

[Related: 'Unacceptable': Poloncarz, local lawmakers push back on Cuomo ventilator mandate]

The question came in light of the announcement Monday by the hospital group, the Healthcare Association of New York State, that it would work with the state on a "voluntary effort" to redeploy available ventilators.

“We are pleased the governor’s executive order gives the commissioner of health the ability to work collaboratively with hospitals to identify needs across New York State and provide resources in ‘real time,' " Thomas J. Quatroche Jr., president and CEO of Erie County Medical Center and chair of HANYS, said in a statement.

Local hospitals said they did not know how many ventilators at their facilities, if any, have been deemed unneeded and available for removal by the state if and when the governor's order is activated.

Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center, for example, has 15 ventilators and four were in use as of Tuesday morning, a figure that has fluctuated in recent days, spokesman Pat Bradley said.

"When you factor in the expected tidal wave of Covid patients to the mix it becomes a matter of extreme concern to us," he said in an email.

Cuomo on Tuesday said the state now has more ventilators on hand, and that "we’re not in the position that we were in."

Cuomo said the state’s ventilator inventory has increased in recent days, through a donation of 1,000 of the machines from China and contributions of hundreds from other states, including California, Washington and Oregon. He also said the state acquired an additional 500.

Cuomo said his initial plan was based on numbers provided by hospitals.

“The hospitals tell us what they have, quote-unquote, available – meaning unused and they’re not going to use it in the foreseeable future,” Cuomo said. “It was always, of the equipment that you, the hospital, believe is available. If the state lent 20% of the available units, as you define available, that would be 500.

“And 500 ventilators was a big deal, especially two weeks ago,” he said.

News Staff Reporters Keith McShea and Thomas J. Prohaska contributed to this story.

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