Mayor Bill de Blasio and the city’s hospitals boss slammed a state-run veterans nursing home in Queens for allowing hundreds of boxes of PPE to get damaged from rot and vermin by storing the gear outdoors for months.
De Blasio spoke out after a “really disturbing” report in THE CITY on Tuesday detailing how officials at the New York State Veterans’ Nursing Home at St. Albans — which is operated by the state Department of Health — have left roughly 1,000 boxes of PPE outside in the elements, covered only by a blue tarp.
“I mean, we all fought our way through COVID. We needed all the PPE we could get. This begs the question again, you know, what is the State of New York doing with nursing homes?” the mayor said. “Why is their oversight so lax?”
State Health Department officials didn’t respond to a question earlier in the week about whether it was appropriate to store sensitive protective gear outdoors.
But NYC Health + Hospitals CEO Mitch Katz was definitive in his condemnation of the practice.
“There is no acceptable reason for keeping PPE outdoors. You keep PPE, not just indoors, but you keep them in rooms, where it’s the right temperature and humidity to protect the viability of it,” Katz said Tuesday at a virtual news conference with the mayor. “There’s no way you can guarantee that PPE is still fully protective if it’s been out in the elements.”
‘We Are Investigating’
Staffers at the nursing home say much of the PPE stacked outside along a private roadway and fence has been rendered unusable because of months of exposure to rain, rats and raccoons.
They said additional boxes are also stuffed floor-to-ceiling indoors in rooms that are intended for resident use, including a library and recreation room.
Over the past week, rental trucks have appeared at the facility to take pallets of boxes away to storage, even as new shipments of the protective gear have arrived, according to staffers.
Only after Katz’s comments did state health department officials acknowledge that some number of the boxes stored outside have been damaged — although they disputed that it was a sizable amount.
“The suggestion that all the items outside are rotting and infested with rodents is inaccurate, and reports of mass damage to these items are grossly exaggerated,” said Jill Montag, an agency spokesperson. “In fact, only a small percentage of boxes have visible damage to them, and we will be thoroughly inspecting everything stored outside to ensure that the PPE is suitable for usage.”
Montag said the boxes housed inside are part of a required 60-day supply of PPE, and are being stored properly.
She added that the boxes outside aren’t required for daily use, but didn’t answer why the facility had received such a large supply. She said all the boxes outside would be moved to storage by Friday.
“We are investigating whether any PPE may have been unnecessarily damaged and will take any appropriate remedial action,” said Montag.
‘Something’s Still Wrong’
The St. Albans nursing home is not alone among healthcare facilities to find itself overburdened with PPE, according to officials at the Afya Foundation in Yonkers.
The non-profit said that while it had worked to distribute two million pieces of PPE during the 2020 COVID crisis to facilities across the state, the group is now receiving donations of excess PPE from some of those same facilities.
“We are redirecting this PPE to places in dire need, like India, Ghana and other countries in Sub-Saharan Africa experiencing a fast-spreading third wave due to the Delta variant,” said Marissa Roberge, communications manager for the foundation. “Facilities with excess PPE should consider donating that PPE to organizations like ours that are able to redistribute supplies to countries still fighting an uphill battle against a mutating virus.”
The state’s oversight of nursing homes during the pandemic has been under investigation for months by the Federal Bureau of Investigations and separately by state Attorney General Letitia James.
Her office revealed in January that state officials were severely undercounting the number of deaths in nursing homes connected to COVID. The report spurred the health department to acknowledge for the first time that upwards of 15,000 nursing home and long-term care residents had died from the virus.
At a handful of facilities like St. Albans, the state’s role at the site extends beyond oversight to direct management.
Staffers have complained since early in the crisis about the mismanagement there — including violations of basic protocols for limiting the spread of COVID-19, and a purposeful undercounting of deaths attributable to the virus.
Family members have since reported that their loved ones at the nursing home had been given a controversial treatment for COVID-19, the antimalarial drug Hydroxychloroquine, without their knowledge — or at times without warning about potential adverse effects.
De Blasio suggested this week that the problems with the PPE storage at the site pointed to larger issues.
“Something’s still wrong here and it goes beyond the horrifying reality of last year,” he said. “There’s something even bigger here about why the state does such a poor job of addressing the needs in nursing homes.”