Field hospital in NY during COVID-19 pandemic.

Ethical and Legal Challenges Faced by Hospitals in New York’s First COVID-19 Surge

By Zachary E. Shapiro

After COVID-19 reached the United States, New York City quickly became the epicenter of the pandemic. Clinicians at New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center turned to the Clinical Ethics Consultation Service to help meet the ethical challenges that arose. During the surge, the Ethics Team saw a marked increase in the volume of consultations for individual patients in the hospital, and took part in over 2,500 informal consultations with caregivers. Discussions centered around a wide range of ethical issues distinct from those that come up in routine practice. As one of the only lawyers in the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College, I encountered a myriad of legal concerns presented by the pandemic.

During the height of the surge in New York, there was no formal legal guidance available to clinicians concerning medical practice during a pandemic. Questions about legal immunity abounded, as unclear state and federal guidance left many doctors worried that they were taking personal and professional risks by providing care to COVID-19 patients.

The pandemic forced doctors to shift away from traditional standards of care in terms of resuscitation, patient care, and surrogate decision-making. The ethics team had to take new dynamics into account, such as the risk of infection to doctors and staff, and balance these factors in the risk/benefit calculations for treatments and interventions. Undertaking these shifts without federal or state guidance caused significant distress and concern. It often seemed that the law was not only not helpful, but an active hindrance to medical practice, as many health care workers were consumed by worry about the prospect of future liability. This concern persisted, even though the deviations in the standard of practice were necessitated by the realities of the pandemic overwhelming our health care system.

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hospital equipment

Balancing Health Care Rationing and Disability Rights in a Pandemic

By Yolanda Bustillo and Rachel Perler

Amid the present surge of the coronavirus pandemic, it is crucial that disability rights are a factor in the development of triage protocols.

During the last week of December, the CDC recorded a record of 225,269 new coronavirus cases and 118,948 total hospitalizations. Health care systems across the country have predicted that they soon may face shortages of ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other limited resources.

In Utah, for example, hospital administrators have implemented informal triage protocols that prioritize patients based on health status, clinical factors, and the time sensitivity of their needed procedures. Hospitals in California have similarly begun rationing care.

If these dire circumstances worsen, hospital systems may apply triage protocols that deviate from best practices and impermissibly discriminate against people with disabilities.

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Oxygen mask as part of artificial lungs ventilation machine in surgery room, closeup.

Arizona’s Crisis Standards of Care and Fair Allocation of Resources During COVID-19

By Govind Persad

As COVID-19 cases spiked in Arizona, the state activated its crisis standards of care, which provide triage guidelines if absolute scarcity arises.

Arizona has done the right thing by adopting crisis standards of care instead of leaving these decisions about ventilators to be made ad hoc by medical staff, which presents the risk both of arbitrary and biased decisions and of greater distress for clinical staff who are forced to make decisions without a guidance framework.

Arizona’s activation of its crisis standards of care stands in contrast to most other states’ response to the pandemic, including New York, which ultimately did not activate its crisis standards of care. Even though Arizona and other states have not yet reached the stage of absolute scarcity where triage policies are invoked—and hopefully will take steps to avoid reaching it—the move has prompted discussions about fair triage policies and criticisms from some community organizations.

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State Civil Liability Protections for Physicians who Provide Care During Covid-19 Pandemic map.

How States are Protecting Health Care Providers from Legal Liability in the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Valerie Gutmann Koch

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians and policymakers alike have raised the alarm about potential legal liability for following crisis standards of care.

Liability protections may be necessary when, due to the circumstances of the emergency, a state faces scarce resources (such as ventilators or ICU beds) and the state activates its crisis standards of care (CSC). A CSC authorizes the legal prioritization of patients for scarce resources based on changing circumstances and increased demands. CSCs provide a mechanism for reallocating staff, facilities, and supplies to meet needs during a public health emergency.

Notably, and by necessity, the standard of care that clinicians may be able to provide during the COVID-19 pandemic may depart significantly from standard non-emergency medical practice. In a non-crisis setting, the prevailing medical standard of care focuses on the needs of each individual patient and is centered on the principle of informed consent. In a public health emergency, however, such concentrated care may be impossible or inadvisable due to: (1) resource limitations and (2) the goal of saving as many lives as possible.

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