The city’s COVID-19 response suffered from incomplete, outdated disaster plans and a lack of critical supplies, according to an interim report released Wednesday by Comptroller Scott Stringer, who accused Mayor Bill de Blasio of stonewalling his investigation.
The probe was launched more than a year ago, but Stringer said de Blasio’s office has not released significant documentation — even after he sued.
At a news conference Wednesday, Stringer called on the mayor to “provide our office and the public with the documents, witnesses, and the information we need to complete this investigation rather than continue a lengthy court battle.”
The interim report shows that in the weeks before the city’s first confirmed coronavirus case last year, officials across multiple agencies scrambled to get information — including how many masks the city had in its stockpile and how many hospital beds were available on any given day. The city’s most recent written plan to handle an emergency was from 2013, and unfinished.
Later in the spring of 2020, the shortage of supplies led to a scramble to obtain needed equipment amid a breakdown of the global supply chain and a flood of COVID-19 patients into hospitals across the city.
The city later signed more than $1.4 billion in emergency no-bid contracts that are currently being probed by Stringer’s office.
Among the fodder for Stringer’s probe: THE CITY’s “deeply disturbing” report in November detailing how the de Blasio administration bought hundreds of thousands of masks that would be useless in medical settings and lost track of critically needed ventilators.
“The city did not have the arsenal it needed to be prepared to fight back,” Stringer said Wednesday.
De Blasio’s Defense
The mayor defended the city’s response to the pandemic that has killed more than 33,000 New Yorkers since March 2020.
“There’s no way to fully understand a global pandemic until you’re in it and none of us anticipated, anywhere, anything like this,” de Blasio said at an unrelated press briefing on Wednesday, pointing out the work done to find needed supplies at the pandemic’s peak.
“I think there’s a lot that says this city responded very powerfully.”
But Stringer’s ongoing investigation found governmental dysfunction created many issues as COVID-19 ravaged the city.
As the city became aware of the threat of the virus in January 2020, officials delayed citywide planning to address a possible outbreak, with preparations beginning only in mid-to-late February, according to the report.
New York City began planning for a potential pandemic in the mid-2000s, but never finished that work, according to the report. Once COVID-19 hit, those plans were not only incomplete but also outdated.
As the city conducted an agency-wide survey of available surgical masks in February 2020, officials working with emergency management found that the health department’s stockpile of more than 101,000 N95s had expired years earlier.
On Feb. 10, 2020, Deanne Criswell, then the city’s emergency management commissioner, wrote in an email that “there are no non-expired N-95 surgical grade masks in any city stockpile,” according to the report.
That flew in the face of NYC Health + Hospitals’ own pandemic preparation playbook, which in 2019 called for amassing a large stockpile of personal protective equipment in case of an pandemic involving a respiratory ailment, as THE CITY revealed in December.
Additionally, the role of the city’s Emergency Management agency during the crisis was unclear, Stringer’s report found. A spokeswoman for the agency deferred to the comments made by de Blasio.
By the time the city recorded its first official COVID-19 case on March 1, 2020, authorities didn’t have updated and reliable information, including how many hospital beds were available at any given time or what personal-protective equipment was in the city’s stockpile, according to the report.
In an email sent mid-March, an official with the emergency management agency wrote that the city’s public hospital system didn’t have real-time data on how many beds were available.
The city’s health commissioner when the pandemic erupted, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, quit last August, expressing her “deep disappointment” at de Blasio’s handling of the crisis.
Waiting on Emails and More
The comptroller’s office sued the de Blasio administration in November 2020 after officials failed to turn over documents integral to its investigation into the COVID-19 crisis response. Stringer requested emails, correspondence and other records.
Stringer first launched the investigation in May 2020 but was strung along by the city, which set and missed deadlines for sharing the information, the comptroller charged.
When asked for comment, a spokesman for the mayor referred to de Blasio’s comments from earlier Wednesday.
Stringer and his team recommended the city update its operational plan for future pandemics and for other emergencies, as well as maintain larger stockpiles of critical supplies.