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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mask

The Disparate Impact of COVID-19 on Individuals with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities

By James W. Lytle

Katrina Jirik’s compelling post on the dangers posed to people with disabilities if care is rationed during the COVID-19 pandemic powerfully characterizes discriminatory allocation criteria as a form of “updated eugenic thought” that cannot be reconciled with the Americans with Disabilities Act and other anti-discrimination statutes.

I worry, however, that persons with disabilities and other vulnerable populations face an even graver threat:  policymakers may unintentionally adopt policies that neglect to consider the unique needs of persons with disabilities and inadvertently place them at much greater risk.

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empty hospital bed

Disability and Rationing of Care amid COVID-19

By Katrina N. Jirik, PhD

As health care resources grow increasingly scarce amid the COVID-19 pandemic, states, hospitals, and individuals are forced to make tough decisions about the rationing of care. These decisions are often framed in terms of medical and/or legal criteria. However, many people, especially the physicians who make the difficult decisions, realize they have a huge moral component related to perceptions of the value of an individual’s life.

Various states have triage guidelines in place, which differ somewhat, but primarily reflect a utilitarian goal of saving the most people with the least expenditure of finite resources. This is where the societal issue of the value of the life of a person with a disability comes into play.

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hospital equipment

How Triage During COVID-19 Can be Fair to Patients with Disabilities

By Govind Persad

On March 28, 2020, the Department of Health and Human Services issued guidance regarding the application of antidiscrimination law to triage policies — that is, policies for fairly allocating scarce medical treatments, like ventilators, in the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many news outlets incorrectly portrayed HHS as prohibiting triage guidelines from considering disability. But the guidance is more nuanced.

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