De Blasio’s move to commandeer VA during pandemic could endanger vets, experts warn

Mayor bypasses NY Gov. Cuomo with letter to feds

Bill de Blasio coronavirus presser
Bill De Blasio at video press conference on coronavirus response, New York City Hall, March 19
(William Farrington-Pool/Getty)
Updated: March 21, 2020 - 11:11am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio ramps up his mayday calls for the Department of Veterans Affairs to fight coronavirus, experts caution that such actions could backfire against veterans.

“The result would be to hurt people who need help,” said Dale McElhattan, who was deputy chief of WMD countermeasures for the U.S. State Department, and who specialized in countering chemical and biological warfare. “Why would you do that?”

The latest appeal from de Blasio bypassed Governor Andrew Cuomo, and came in the form of a Thursday letter to two cabinet secretaries: Alex Azar of Health and Human Services, and Robert Wilkie of Veterans Affairs. 

“The VA’s existing infrastructure in the City, stockpile of medical supplies, and highly skilled and trained workforce would provide much needed assistance to our ongoing efforts to protect the health and well-being of all our citizens,” de Blasio wrote. 

The mayor asked to use “all VA hospitals and other medical facilities throughout the five boroughs,” and for “any available beds at VA hospitals or other existing facilities before we reach critical mass.” He also asked that the VA “make any doctors, nurses, and other support staff available to assist our City frontline responders,” and for medical supplies such as ventilators, masks, gowns, gloves, and other items.

“These plans would create problems on top of problems,” said Dr. Keith Rose, a physician who has worked internationally and has trained foreign doctors. “The VA is not designed to treat the entire community. It’s designed specifically to treat veterans who need care.”

Many of the nation’s 19 million veterans are older and have pre-existing conditions, veterans advocates and the VA have said. 

“If you bring in coronavirus patients and expose these vulnerable vets, you’re putting them at deadly risk,” a New York-based government source told Just the News.

“The idea of using the VA grounds is nonsensical,” said McElhattan. “This virus is too contagious to introduce it to people whose systems are compromised. It's absurd to introduce that contagion into a building.”

Problems would linger long after the crisis has passed, he said. 

“You’ll never be comfortable the building will be sanitized,” McElhattan said. “You don't know what you've left behind.”

One scenario that was discussed regarding the mayor’s request was to place hospitalized New York veterans into ambulances and move them to other sites, said the New York-based government source. There was no indication of where those veterans would go. 

The VA has 170 hospitals serving some 19 million veterans nationwide, the agency has said.

The agency is prepared to offer help with coronavirus, both on and off site, if asked, the VA told Just the News. 

“VA stands ready to surge capabilities into civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues,” Veterans Affairs spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said. “But at this time they are not encountering such issues.”

New York City and other civilian jurisdictions would not have to be overburdened in order to seek VA help, said a Texas-based expert on federal law.

“There is no condition I know of where the state first has to prove that they have exhausted their own resources before asking for federal help,” said federal attorney Nick Oberheiden. 

The mayor also has called for military measures. Although he is not the only politician to do so, he has been among the most vocal and sweeping, if still somewhat vague, in his calls to action

“Our military is the only answer,” de Blasio said this week in one of many televised entreaties for “our military to fully mobilize.”

Any decision on responding to de Blasio’s requests ultimately would fall to the president in consultation with the secretaries of Defense or Veterans Affairs, Oberheiden said. 

As of publication time, De Blasio’s office had not responded to questions submitted by Just the News.



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