Lacking Government Approval During Pandemic, “State-of-the-Art Testing Machines . . . Weren’t Turned On”

(p. 12) The ethics manual of the American College of Physicians states that “the ethical imperative for physicians to provide care” overrides “the risk to the treating physician, even during epidemics.” Nevertheless, for most of human history, doctors often ran away in the face of widespread contagious disease.

. . .

When health workers stick around to treat patients, even at risk to their own lives, it is something to be celebrated, and the journalist Marie Brenner does just that in “The Desperate Hours,” an account of how workers at New York-Presbyterian, an academic health system, coped with the Covid surge in New York City beginning in the spring of 2020. The book details both medical heroism and corporate cowardice, prescient decisions and howling missteps, all against the backdrop of a swirling and mysterious pandemic that claimed the lives of more than 30,000 residents, not to mention 35 New York-Presbyterian employees.

Along the way we encounter some eye-opening anecdotes. Early on, New York City hospitals were faced with an alarming dearth of masks and a near rebellion by workers on the front lines. In response, New York-Presbyterian’s chief operating officer, Dr. Laura Forese, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, assured staff members that “masks would not be necessary” unless workers were in direct contact with infected patients. Though she was working off mistaken C.D.C. guidelines, it was “advice and regulation that countermanded every bit of common sense understood by public health officials since the Black Plague,” Brenner writes.

. . .

Yet state-of-the-art testing machines at New York-Presbyterian weren’t turned on because the leadership was waiting for the government to approve their use. When doctors and nurses complained, the communications office attempted to throttle them and even threatened them with demotions or dismissal. It is part of what Dr. Steve Corwin, New York-Presbyterian’s chief executive, calls “a failure of imagination on our part.”

The book has its share of heroes who buck the strictures of the system to speak the truth about what was coming (or had already arrived). No one was more heroic than Dr. Nathaniel Hupert, an infectious-disease modeler at New York-Presbyterian who raised the alarm about the pandemic in February 2020 but was largely ignored.

“This is going to be historically bad, rivaling the medical consequences of 1918, but far exceeding it in terms of global financial impact,” he warned his colleagues. “If we get through this, it will be the sort of thing that we will tell our grandchildren about.” Yet when Hupert showed his projections at a planning meeting, the medical school dean told him, “I think we will be all right.”

. . .

Compounding the disaster was that little guidance was coming from executives on how to navigate the crisis, including how to potentially ration beds and ventilators (which fortunately did not come to pass). “The amount of moral damage they did to a lot of people while they get paid millions of dollars is disgusting,” a critical-care physician says bitterly.

For the full review, see:

Sandeep Jauhar. “Plagued.” The New York Times Book Review (Sunday, July 3, 2022): 12.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the review has the date June 19, 2022, and has the title “Facing Death During the Pandemic.”)

The book under review is:

Brenner, Marie. The Desperate Hours: One Hospital’s Fight to Save a City on the Pandemic’s Front Lines. New York: Flatiron Books, 2022.

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