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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Empty hospital bed.

New Data Reignites Concerns over COVID-19 and Nursing Homes in New York State

By James W. Lytle 

Concerns over New York State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly with respect to its treatment of nursing homes, have recently re-emerged in light of a new report and court ruling related to the matter.

Almost from the outset of the pandemic, the State faced scrutiny as to whether it was accurately reporting deaths of nursing home patients.

After nursing homes complained in April about the lack of PPE and other resources to combat the pandemic, Governor Andrew Cuomo responded that it was not the state’s responsibility, and asked the Department of Health and the Attorney General to launch investigations into nursing homes’ response to the pandemic.

Nine months later, in late January 2021, the report by New York State Attorney General Letitia James of the nursing home investigation was released.

Among the report’s headlines, the Attorney General’s preliminary analysis found that the Department of Health had undercounted deaths of nursing home residents due to COVID-19 by about 50%, largely because of the failure of the State to count the deaths of those residents who were transferred to hospitals immediately prior to their deaths. No other state excluded patients who had been transferred before death to hospitals from their nursing home fatality reports.

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Senior citizen woman in wheelchair in a nursing home.

COVID-19 and Nursing Homes: The New York State Experience

By James W. Lytle 

While New York State has generally earned high marks for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, nagging questions continue over whether more might have been done to protect patients in nursing homes and other congregate settings — and whether some of the state’s policies even may have made matters worse.

Lessons from the New York State experience may prove helpful to those regions that have displaced New York as the epicenter of the American pandemic, and may help ensure that adequate steps are taken to protect the most frail and vulnerable among us from any resurgence of COVID-19 or from some future disease.

Although New York was among the hardest hit states, with the highest number of deaths thus far (over 32,000, more than twice as many as California), the aggressive steps taken by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration have been widely credited with reducing the spread of the disease in the State.

But a key, sustained criticism of the Governor’s handling of the pandemic focuses on the state’s nursing homes.

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Busy Nurse's Station In Modern Hospital

Finetuning Liability Protections in the COVID-19 Emergency

By James W. Lytle 

When the scope of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, legal commentators, physician organizations, and health care policymakers sounded the alarm over the potential civil and criminal liabilities that practitioners and facilities might face during the emergency.

In short order, the federal government and many states enacted liability limitations.  At least two states—Maryland and Virginia—had pre-existing legislation that was triggered by the emergency, while many other states enacted or are considering new legislation to limit liability during the crisis.

While the source (executive or legislative), scope (civil or criminal), and precise terms of these liability protections varied by jurisdiction, the speed with which they were enacted was remarkable, given the intensely contentious political battles that typically ensue over medical malpractice and civil justice reform.

Predictably, at least one state has already begun to tinker and fine-tune its liability limitations. Just three months and twenty-one days after liability protections were enacted, the New York State legislature sent a bill to Governor Andrew Cuomo that curbs those protectionsThe Governor signed the bill into law on August 3rd.

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Hands close-up of surgeons holding medical instruments.

COVID-19 and Organ Transplantation

By James W. Lytle

After a banner year for organ transplantation in the United States in 2019, the success became a tattered memory by April 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit major cities in the U.S. with its full fury.

A record number of 39,178 organs were donated in 2019, including 7,397 organs from living donors, also an all-time high.  After several years of adverse media and regulatory scrutiny, LiveOn NY, the organ procurement organization (OPO) that serves the Metropolitan New York City region, proudly reported that a total of 938 organs had been transplanted in 2019, another record that represented more than a fifty percent increase over the transplant total in 2015.

By late April 2020, however, organ transplantation activity in New York State had reportedly declined by ninety percent.

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Courtroom concept. Blind justice, mallet of the judge. Gray stone background.

Lawsuits as Conduits for Misinformation During COVID-19

By Ana Santos Rutschman and Robert Gatter

On April 21, Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt filed a lawsuit against China for having “deceived the public” about COVID-19. The complaint, which names the Chinese Communist Party, the Wuhan Institute of Virology and other government-run entities as defendants, puts Missouri in the unenviable position of being the first state to sue a foreign nation demanding damages for economic and non-economic losses associated with the pandemic. But Missouri is not alone. A putative class action was brought nearly simultaneously in New York against the World Health Organization, also seeking damages for “injury, damage and loss” caused by COVID-19.

In addition to tracing the early history of the Missouri and New York suits, in this post we explain how these high-profile lawsuits are being used as conduits for misinformation in ways that are likely to accelerate the crystallization of misinformation and their recurring sources. Moreover, these lawsuits add to the ongoing instrumentalization of the individual and collective hardships created by a major public health crisis as a tool to further ideology – as has happened recently in Texas in connection with abortion rights throughout the duration of the pandemic.

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How the New York Court of Appeals Applied the Soda Cap Criteria to Vaccines

By Dorit Reiss

New York’s Court of Appeals reversed an Appellate Division decision and reinstated New York City’s influenza mandate for city daycares in Garcia v. New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene in June. Applying the same criteria the court used in 2014 to overturn the city’s controversial Soda Cap, the court found that the rules are well within the Board’s authority.

We can suspect that the recent influenza season influenced the decision, but it was also based on a more explicit delegation of authority, and a history of vaccination programs by the Board.

Also, it’s likely good news for at least some of New York’s youngest, who will be better protected from a dangerous disease, and for the public.

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