The story of how the New York State Veterans Home at St. Albans in Queens handled the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly regarding personal protective equipment, is a saga of poor decision-making, inadequate record-keeping, and insufficient oversight, assistance and communication by state officials. Ultimately, it resulted in a waste of up to $1.6 million worth of PPE.
It's been more than two years since officials with the St. Albans facility left piles of PPE in its outside parking lot for months, rendering it unusable. Now, a state inspector general report makes clear that the state and facilities like the veterans home still have lessons to learn from their COVID-era experiences. The IG report comes as families of more than 100 veterans who died of COVID at the St. Albans facility are suing the veterans home and state Department of Health for negligence, pointing to inadequate medical care and infection-control protocols.
PPE issues at the St. Albans home occurred in 2021, after the initial COVID wave but amid continuing uncertainty and complexity in the pandemic response. Fears of a so-called "third wave" led the state to require the home to order sufficient PPE. But the orders made in late 2020 were delayed, in part due to poor communication by the state Health Department, then arrived in bulk in early 2021, rather than being spread out. That led to a storage shortage, which led the veterans home to utilize its outdoor space to disastrous consequences.
Media reports led the state Health Department to contact the inspector general — an important step showing state officials at least recognized the problem. The resulting investigation laid out in excruciating detail an astonishing series of mistakes, shortcomings and problems. Everyone was at fault. The situation went beyond the fog of the pandemic, or any excuse officials have used. And problems continue today; the facility has $779,000 of PPE that has expired.
The report illustrates just how much work state and veterans home officials still must do. The inspector general's sensible recommendations range from ways to improve communication and increase hiring to the need for better record-keeping and the effort to account for storage space when ordering supplies and materials.
A Health Department official rightly pointed out that "decision-makers" in the governor's office and Health Department involved in the St. Albans situation are no longer on the job and said the department has begun to work on making critical fixes. The department should make its progress and improvements public.
It would behoove the Health Department to broaden its attention beyond the veterans home to its oversight of other facilities across the region, including Long Island nursing homes that continue to experience staffing shortages, PPE issues, and other problems. Everyone can learn from the New York State Veterans Home experience. The horrors of the pandemic may be behind us but other challenges certainly lie ahead. We must be ready.
MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.