Fact check: Did NY pass on buying ventilators to fund tuition for undocumented immigrants?

Matthew Brown, USA TODAY

The claim: Gov. Andrew Cuomo decided against buying more ventilators in favor of helping undocumented immigrants

As New York state has become a global hot spot of the coronavirus pandemic, politicians have exchanged barbs, blaming each other for the crisis while allegations spread on social media.

On March 24, Facebook user Mike Proto posted to the public group “Feisty New Haveners Talk Politics” accusing New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of declining to stock up on ventilators while supporting education for undocumented immigrants.

“Dear Gov. Cuomo. You had a chance to stock NY hospitals with ventilators 3 years ago. You used the money to give illegal aliens 'free' tuition,” the post reads. “We tried to tell you, nothing’s free. Now it’s Trump’s fault?” The post has over 2,000 likes and 36,000 shares.

Critics of Cuomo’s response to the crisis have echoed similar sentiments, including several columnists, politicians and President Trump himself.

The original post appears to be referencing two separate recent debates in the state Capitol in Albany.

In 2015, New York convened a Task Force on Life and the Law, which addressed the issue of ventilator stockpiling and guidelines for use during a theoretical pandemic.

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A 2017 battle in the New York State Legislature centered around the Dream Act, which offered undocumented students access to state financial aid and higher education scholarships. The bill became law in 2019.

USA TODAY was unable to reach Proto for comment on his Facebook post.

New York's Task Force on Life and the Law

States vary in how to allocate resources and what guidelines to use in times of crisis. In 2007, New York convened its first “Task Force on Life and the Law” to address a wide range of ethical, legal and logistical dilemmas that could arise during a crisis.

In 2015, the task force released an updated report with added scenarios, including an expanded analysis entitled “Allocation of Ventilators in an Influenza Pandemic.” Modeled after flu pandemics during the 20th century, the report was intended as a guideline that would prevent as many deaths as possible in a similar outbreak.  

“It has been estimated that during a severe 6-week outbreak, 89,610 influenza patients will require ventilators in New York State and there will not be enough ventilators in the State to meet the demand,” the authors of the study wrote.

The study modeled that in a moderate flu pandemic, like those seen in 1957 and 1868, New York would need approximately 2,264 ventilators at the disease’s peak, a number within the state’s stockpile capacity. However, in a 1918 flu-like pandemic, peak ventilator need was expected to reach around 18,619 machines, leaving the state with an expected shortage of 15,783 ventilators.

“In the event of an overwhelming burden on the health care system, New York will not have sufficient ventilators to meet critical care needs despite its emergency stockpile,” the report states. “Furthermore, severe staffing shortages are anticipated, and purchasing additional ventilators beyond a threshold will not save additional lives, because there will not be a sufficient number of trained staff to operate them,” the report also reads.

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As it was not within the mandate of report, the authors do not make an explicit recommendation for the state government to buy more ventilators. The report does highlight, however, that neither the state nor federal government's stockpile of ventilators would be enough to address expected need in the most severe scenario.

New York's ventilator stockpile and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread throughout the state in March, Cuomo called on the federal government for aid in acquiring ventilators to address the crisis.

While the task force's report states New York did add 2,000 ventilators to its stockpile between 2007-15, there is no clear evidence at the moment that more ventilators have been purchased since then. 

Trump derided Cuomo for not expanding the state's ventilator stockpile during a Fox News town hall on March 24. “New York Gov. Cuomo rejected buying for a pandemic,” the president said. “He had 16,000 he could have had and didn’t buy them.”  

The president appears to have been quoting directly from a Gateway Pundit article titled “Cuomo Administration Rejected Purchasing Additional Ventilators in 2015 for Pandemic Preparedness Based on Funding – Recommended System on Who Would Not Receive Treatment.”

Before the president’s comments, New York Post columnist Betsy McCaughey wrote an article, “We didn’t have to have ventilator shortage — leaders chose not to prep for pandemic.” In the piece,McCaughey cited the Task Force on Life and the Law’s analysis of New York's ventilator stockpile.

“In 2015, the state could have purchased the additional 16,000 needed ventilators for $36,000 apiece, or a total of $576 million. It’s a lot of money, but in hindsight, spending half a percent of the budget to prepare for a pandemic was the right thing to do,” McCaughey writes.

There is no relation between New York's Task Force on Life and the Law and the state's Dream Act, a law meant to help undocumented students in New York gain access to financial aid and other scholarships for higher education. It is unclear what other initiative or legislation the original viral post could be referencing.

Our ruling: False

It is true that a government-commissioned task force determined that in a severe pandemic scenario New York state would not have enough ventilators to address projected need. But, the task force did not issue direct recommendations for the state to buy any more ventilators. There is also no connection between the task force's work and any provisions for funding education for undocumented immigrants in the state; the most high-profile law on the topic also has no relation to the current issue. We rate this claim FALSE because it is not supported by our research.

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks to the press at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York, on March 27, 2020.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: NY didn't fund immigrant tuition over ventilator stockpile