One heck of a dishonest report from CBS's 60 Minutes on the medical mask shortage

CBS, the network that brought us the crying nurse with mental health issues who didn't understand hospital procedures and the two, count 'em, two, video instances of Italian hospital mayhem to make phony claims about chaos at New York and Pennsylvania hospitals in the coronavirus pandemic, has now put out another whopper.

This time, it's a 60 Minutes segment about mask and personal protective equipment shortages at a New York City hospital, which, its report argues, is all Trump's fault.

Here is their tweet with the segment:

Wow. With a record like CBS's on this crisis, you'd think it'd be extra careful about facts, particularly since its top brand, 60 Minutes, is involved.  But nope, it's still promoting the same dishonest narrative that drove those previous credibility-killers — that America's hospitals are all overwhelmed (they're not), and President Trump is to blame (such garbage).  One hospital's problems obtaining personal protective equipment has nothing to do with what's going on out there.

To be sure, it's likely that some hospitals, such as the one featured, Jacobi Medical Center in the Bronx, are overwhelmed, thought 60 Minutes never got around to asking the hospital bosses about this.  The featured hospital is in New York City, after all, where living space is tight, the Chinese New Year's parade went forward, the schools stayed open, the packed subways remain the only practical way to get around, and the coronavirus has in fact hit hard.  Jacobi was featured by 60 Minutes as a proxy for all hospitals, and it probably has some real problems, even though the nurse quoted was an activist protestor, and much of the footage inside the hospital showed no social distancing efforts among supposedly terrified and underequipped medical personnel there.  We can accept that there are problems.

The "why" of it is where the shoddy journalism came in.  As 60 Minutes painted a picture of doom and gloom, and then featured a gotcha interview with White House adviser Peter Navarro, with argumentative questions in strong contrast to the credulous softball questions thrown out to the individual Bronx doctor and nurse (they didn't ask anyone running the actual hospital what might be going on), other stuff around the country suggested other things:  

Here's what's being put out by medical personnel on TikTok and Twitter, as this 60 Minutes report came out, no social distancing required:

(Here are Canadian and U.K. examples, too — unlike CBS, I checked when and where.)

Fact is, not every hospital is overwhelmed.  The nurses and medics doing their butt dance might well be fine doing it, given that they may not be as overwhelmed as some parts of New York, and heck, hospital work can be stressful and monotonous, so no harm in letting them have their fun and build their camaraderie.  It's obviously not in a hospital in distress owing to an absence of personal protective equipment.

The real question is why Jacobi was so seemingly lacking in personal protective equipment.

First, did the hospital have its National Institutes for Health's recommended 10-week supply of personal protective equipment, with an even higher stockpile recommended for pandemics?  That's what the NIH cited from a Canadian study in the wake of the 2009 H1N1 pandemic.

The authors reported that the Ministry of Health plans for pandemic influenza called for hospitals to have a 10-week supply of PPE equipment, but they did not account for increases in the supplies that would be needed.

You'd think a place in New York, which is more vulnerable than more spread out places, might have that as a consideration. 

Did the hospital have a 10-week supply?  When did it run out?  Why did it run out — was it an "out the door" problem, as President Trump brought up earlier with regard to a New York hospital, which is far from immune to inside criminality?  Sixty Minutes never asked.

How were purchasing decisions made at Jacobi?  Was it a mismanagement issue, some bad planning?  According to HealthLink Dimensions, a medical site, this is a typical scenario:

Physicians and administrators seem to agree that ease of use and staff requirements for training are important considerations for large scale purchases. For all hospital departments, the transition to value-based care has meant an increased emphasis on keeping costs under control and maintaining efficient operations, strategic imperatives that have a powerful impact when buying new equipment.

Sixty Minutes never asked. And how many COVID-19 cases did they treat? Again, 60 Minutes never asked.

Second, the hospital seemed to have had problems well before the coronavirus outbreak. This ranking from U.S. News & World Report is anything but flattering:

To help patients decide where to receive care, U.S. News generates hospital rankings by evaluating data on nearly 5,000 hospitals in 16 adult medical specialties, 9 adult medical procedures or conditions and 10 pediatric specialties. To be nationally ranked in a specialty, a hospital must excel in caring for the sickest, most medically complex patients. The ratings in procedures and conditions, by contrast, focus on typical Medicare patients. Hospitals that do well in multiple areas of adult care may be ranked in their state and metropolitan area. This hospital achieved the highest rating possible in 1 procedure or condition. Read more about how we rank best hospitals.

A highest rating in only one speciality in a big New York hospital? It appears to be "high performing" on just heart failure issues, and only based on survival rates, which is commendable. But there's also the below-average rating it got for knee surgery, as well as the large number of average ratings it got, and the even larger number of no ratings at all, which has to be a red flag.

It also got a "fewer than average" rating for timely immunizations against seasonal flu, which might just be linked to why it sees so many contagious disease cases.

Most troubling was the rating it got for "patient experience," displaying a rock-bottom rating of one out of five stars on all fronts, including cleanliness, with only a single exception for physician communication, for which it got two stars. U.S. News says that that atrocious detail doesn't figure in its rankings for determining top hospitals — if it did, it's unlikely Jacobi would be ranked among the tops. Sixty Minutes didn't ask about that and whether such patient experiences might be related to management issues with could also include bad supply management.

The doctor quoted was a general surgeon, and while he came off as generally credible until he started blaming Trump, but the CBS report didn't clarify whether he was on the front lines of infectious disease treatment or not. The nurse came off as an activist, and a less-than-credible medical person based on her multiple ear piercings, she was the loudest Trump-blamer, but may well have had a longstanding history of union activism against the hospital and was not letting this crisis go to waste. Her claims about how all other countries (is she thinking of Italy? Spain? U.K.?) have all the personal equipment they need is probably ignorance-based, but 60 Minutes knew the truth of that one and ran with her low-information nonsense anyway.

In any case, the condition of the hospital is germane to the issue, because both medical people quoted blamed the issue on Trump instead of the mismanagement and failure to plan of their own hospital (which probably pleased their bosses), and 60 Minutes asked no questions. 

The whole thing - the hospital shortages, the hospital's inability to get what they needed from other hospitals, and the depleted national medical stockpile, was simply blamed on Trump. 

The left-wing Atlantic Monthly's Olga Khazan, debunked this good a few days ago, putting out an excellent piece filled with hard facts, and credible sources on what the national medical stockpile is, how it's supposed to be used, and why it's depleted of personal protective equipment:

Start with this:

But the stockpile was never intended to be the nation's great savior. It wasn't supposed to provide all of the nation's medical-supply needs for a multi-month pandemic. Congress never doled out enough money for it to do so. Instead, the officials who monitored the national stockpile were hopeful that hospitals were making their own stockpiles. But to save money, they largely weren't. In that context, the skimpy mask supply in the Strategic National Stockpile is not the thing that derailed the American response to COVID-19. Rather, it's one of a series of planning failures that created the crisis we're in today.

Just like everything else in the government, the Strategic National Stockpile is funded through congressional appropriations. That means there's a limited amount of money to be spent, and the people in charge of the stockpile have to decide how to spend it. Officials bought millions of N95 masks and other flu-type preparations with supplemental congressional funding that trickled in from 2005 to 2007, says Greg Burel, who was the director of the stockpile from 2007 until January 2020. But then that supplemental money dried up.

Maybe House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who ultimately decides appropriations, should be answering a few questions. Not a chance of course, with 60 Minutes.

The China factor, and the fact that China had a monopoly on mask manufacture and was using it to not sell masks, was also cited, just as the hapless Peter Navarro did when he tried to explain the matter to 60 Minutes.

There's also this:

Still, the fundamental mission of the stockpile remained the same: A stopgap, not a safety net. Jared Kushner drew opprobrium last week for appearing to say that the states were on their own when it comes to medical supplies. "The notion of the federal stockpile was, it's supposed to be our stockpile. It's not supposed to be states' stockpiles that they then use," he said.

Although Kushner's wording was undeniably inartful, the former stockpile directors said he sort of has a point. "Kushner doesn't know exactly how to phrase it, but the stockpile was never designed to be for everybody all at once, anything that you might need for as long as you need," Levy said.

The stockpile, Burel and Levy told me, was never meant to provide masks for the entire nation for months at a time. The idea was instead that hospitals and states would create their own stockpiles, and under extenuating circumstances—when they ran out of supplies, or if they were incapacitated for some reason—they could fall back on the national stockpile.

Sixty Minutes has converted what's essentially a hospital failure into a federal obligation to subsidize the hospital's poor planning.

It was a dishonest as heck report that revolved solely around blaming Trump. How happy the hospital mismanagers and out-the-door inside crowd must have been to have read about this — do whatever you want and blame Trump. The rest of us can only see a lot of dishonest journalism, creating quite a tapestry pattern of error, and a growing credibility problem for CBS, as this nonsense keeps happening, again, and again, and again.

Photo illustration by Monica Showalter with use of Pixabay public domain sources.