They didn’t have a plan.
The Big Apple’s response to coronavirus was badly hobbled during the crucial early weeks of the pandemic because City Hall lacked a comprehensive pandemic response plan, a blistering new audit revealed Wednesday.
The report from city Comptroller Scott Stringer also revealed that agency infighting, communications breakdowns and inventory tracking failures hampered efforts to contain the initial wave of infections, which killed thousands and forced a lockdown that crippled the city.
“The city’s initial response to COVID was hampered by a lack of planning, coordination and preparedness across city government,” said Stringer, whose mother died from COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic.
Chief among the failings identified by Stringer’s review was the decade-plus long failure by the Bloomberg and de Blasio administrations to craft and finalize a playbook for how to respond to a pandemic.
“We discovered at the outset of the COVID-19 threat the city did not have a complete citywide operational plan for responding to a pandemic,” Stringer said. “The best they had was a draft plan from 2013 — a plan that was never finished and that hadn’t been updated for seven years.”
The draft plan lacked important details including how to obtain supplies in the midst of a public health crisis, distributing medication and when schools should be closed and then reopened.
Those planning failures came despite repeated warnings from the city Health Department that New York City was uniquely vulnerable to a pandemic because of its status as a major port, tourist destination and commonly packed living arrangements. In 2012, DOH estimated that a severe 10-week pandemic could lead to more than 28,000 deaths and cost the city’s economy almost $33 billion.
Stringer said the 30-page review included only his office’s initial findings because City Hall is fighting his subpoenas for documents from the Health Department, public hospital system and the Mayor’s Office, which would shed more light on the administration’s response.
But the emails and other records the Comptroller’s Office managed to obtain painted a picture of a bureaucracy that was slow to realize the magnitude of the threat and then struggled to respond to it.
In February 2020, the city’s Emergency Management arm was forced to survey individual agencies in order to get a tally of the personal protective gear each had in hand, a task that ended up taking nearly a month, Stringer found.
That survey also turned up staggering shortages of supplies during the early days of the outbreak.
The Health Department had assembled a tiny stockpile of just 100,000 surgical grade N95 masks on hand for pandemic purposes — a supply that the city’s public hospital system would have exhausted in just a few days. And that small number of masks was useless because they had expired at least two years earlier, the report found.
Meanwhile, the city’s public hospital system, the nation’s largest, did not have a centralized way to track of the number of hospital beds it had available in real time.
That failing was compounded by the city Health Department’s own inability to keep tabs on the number of beds available at private hospitals because those institutions are regulated by the state and were only required to report those statistics twice a week.
“There’s no way to fully understand a global pandemic until you’re in it,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said, when asked about the report during his Wednesday press briefing, who added he had not yet seen Stringer’s investigation. “None of us anticipated anything like this and we needed federal leadership that wasn’t there.”
Additional reporting by Julia Marsh
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