Much of the material in the state’s pandemic stockpile had passed its expiration date when the coronavirus crisis struck in March 2020, according to newly released Health Department records.
Expired materials included at least 70 percent of the stockpile’s 4.4 million face masks, 41 percent of its 1,763 ventilators and 23 percent of its surgical gowns – supplies that ran critically short during New York’s devastating first wave of COVID-19.
The records raise further questions about how adequately state officials had prepared for a public health emergency that experts had been predicting for decades.
A better maintained stockpile could have helped the state control the spread of a highly contagious virus and improved treatment of critically ill victims. As it was, officials had to scramble to obtain basic supplies and life-saving equipment during worldwide shortages.
The Health Department released the records Monday in response to a Freedom of Information request by the Empire Center, which sought an inventory of the state’s Medical Emergency Response Cache as of March 1, 2020, when the state recorded its first known case of the novel coronavirus.
The inventory, which is now posted on the Empire Center’s website, documents a total of 106 million individual items, including 575 batteries for medical devices, 2.2 million gloves and 11.3 million doses of antibiotics.
The items were grouped into 3,722 records, most of which did not include an expiration date. Of the 1,530 records that did show an expiration date, 73 percent had expired by March 1, 2020.
The out-of-date materials included 69 percent of the doses of antibiotics and 99 percent of the doses of antiviral medications.
As the records note, however, these medications can retain their effectiveness if properly stored for 10 or 15 years after their date of manufacture. This likely means that many if not all the doses could still be safely used.
The records also note that N-95 masks can be used for up to five years after their expiration date. However, 63 percent of the masks in the state inventory were more than five years out of date.
It’s unclear whether or how materials in the stockpile were deployed. The Empire Center separately requested records of distributions and is awaiting a response from the Health Department. A document reviewed by the Times Union last year indicated that a state warehouse in Guilderland was holding millions of masks and gloves in late March 2020 – when hospitals, nursing homes and other medical providers were clamoring for basic infection-control items such as masks, gowns and gloves.
The state established its pandemic stockpile in 2006, in the aftermath of avian flu and swine flu outbreaks. Lawmakers originally budgeted $29 million a year to amass supplies, equipment and medications. During a budget crisis in 2009, that amount was cut to $1.2 million for maintenance – and it has stayed there ever since, even after the economy recovered and tax revenues bounced back.
This is an example of why transparency is important. The records reveal a potential weakness in a state program that needs to be addressed, but one that officials had not brought to light on their own.
The state has previously revealed little about what was in the stockpile or how it was used during the coronavirus pandemic. In August 2020, a spokesman for former Governor Cuomo was quoted as saying, “As a matter of policy, we do not comment on our stockpiled supplies.”
The Empire Center’s request for the inventory was one of more than 60 Freedom of Information applications submitted on June 22, before Cuomo’s resignation, as part of an effort to improve understanding of the pandemic.
Initially, the Health Department wrongly claimed that it had no records of a stockpile and referred the request to the state’s Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, which maintains a separate cache of emergency supplies. In September, after Governor Hochul assumed office, the Health Department’s Records Access Office acknowledged the error and, after a few weeks, released the inventory.
The records available so far raise further questions that lawmakers should explore as they prepare for future pandemics, including:
- Why don’t the records show an expiration date for all perishable materials? Is the state tracking that information in all cases?
- Does the Health Department have a plan for keeping stockpiled materials up to date? Does it have enough money to replace expired supplies?
- Were the materials properly stored so they could still be safely used after their expiration dates? Did officials regularly inspect the condition of stockpiled supplies?
- How did the state use its stockpile during the worst of last year’s crisis? Were officials unable to distribute some materials because of their age or condition?
- What is the inventory and condition of the stockpile now? Should the state expand the program in preparation for future pandemics?