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Medical workers in protective masks wait to administer COVID-19 tests at a facility in Camden, N.J. (Associated Press) Medical workers in protective masks wait to administer COVID-19 tests at a facility in Camden, N.J. (Associated Press)

Medical workers in protective masks wait to administer COVID-19 tests at a facility in Camden, N.J. (Associated Press)

Paul Specht
By Paul Specht May 8, 2020

No evidence that Mandy Cohen threatened to withhold PPE from NC hospitals

If Your Time is short

  • The legislator says he got his information from a representative for the NC Healthcare Association. 
  • The NCHA rep says she heard about the potential ultimatum from a health department staffer, who she declined to identify.
  • The health department denies Daniel's claim and says the NCHA's rep likely misunderstood their staffer. Hospitals told PolitiFact they never heard of the alleged plan.

A North Carolina legislator claims that the state health department threatened to withhold equipment from hospitals if they resumed elective procedures.

But the health department has denied the claim, and PolitiFact could not confirm that the ultimatum was ever seriously considered or even communicated to hospitals.

Mandy Cohen, secretary of North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services, requested on March 23 that hospitals suspend non-urgent procedures.

The goal was to prevent unnecessary human contact, ensure COVID-19 patients got the care they needed, and preserve the state’s limited supply of protective equipment. 

At the same time, halting elective procedures meant hospitals lost out on revenue generated from those procedures. So it makes sense that they’d want to resume them.

This is where state Senator Warren Daniel comes in. Daniel, a Republican from western North Carolina, tweeted on April 23 that hospitals might be punished if they choose to resume those procedures.

"It’s being reported that NC DHHS is telling hospitals that if they decide to do elective surgeries, they won’t be eligible to receive PPE from the state," Daniel tweeted, referring to personal protective equipment.

He suggested the alleged threat was contrived by Cohen. Aside from Gov. Roy Cooper, Cohen has been perhaps the state’s most visible government official during the pandemic.

Daniel referred to the decision as "The heavy hand of government," adding: "I hope Secretary Cohen will reverse course."

When PolitiFact reached out to Daniel, he said he got the information from the N.C. Healthcare Association, which represents hospitals across the state.

Conversation with a staffer

Daniel said the association "reported to legislators last week that DHHS told them if hospitals began offering elective surgeries again, then the state would not give them additional PPE." He added: "When I heard that I was shocked and thought it was something the public deserved to know."

We reached out to the NC Healthcare Association and were referred to Leah Burns, the group’s senior director of government relations.

"I had a conversation with a staffer at DHHS where this notion was discussed that PPE would potentially be withheld from hospitals if hospitals began elective surgeries," Burns said. She declined to identify the DHHS staffer she spoke with.

"After my conversation with the DHHS staffer, I spoke with a legislative staffer about it. Since then, this idea has not come to fruition, and I do not believe DHHS is withholding PPE from any hospitals in North Carolina," Burns said. She declined to identify the legislative staffer she spoke with.

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Eight days after Daniel’s tweet, on May 1, DHHS offered guidance to hospitals on how they could resume elective procedures. That letter mentions the lack of PPE across the state, stating: "If appropriate PPE is unavailable to protect the health care worker or the supply of appropriate PPE is limited, then the non-time sensitive surgery or procedure should be cancelled."

But the letter doesn’t say hospitals would be cut off from resources if they didn’t obey the guidelines. 

What DHHS said

When we asked DHHS about Daniel’s tweet, spokeswoman Amy Ellis denied his claim.

"That is false. Secretary Cohen did not say that," Ellis said in an email and referred us back to the hospital Association.

When we relayed what Burns said, Ellis suggested someone got confused about the department’s plans.

"Secretary Cohen has never indicated that," she said. "Conversations between staffers can easily be misunderstood."

Since Daniel posted his tweet, several North Carolina hospitals announced plans to resume some elective procedures.

What hospitals said

PolitiFact reached out to several hospital systems to see if DHHS threatened to withhold PPE.

"I’m told that’s not true," said Alan Wolf, spokesman for the UNC Health System. He added that UNC Health leaders and providers are growing concerned about further delays in care for some patients. UNC Health has been doing less than half its usual volume of procedures and will probably increase it to 65% to 75%, Linda Butler, the system’s chief medical officer, recently told the News & Observer.

Duke Health didn’t receive any correspondence from DHHS indicating the department might withhold PPE, said Sarah Avery, director of Duke’s Health News Office.

"Duke Health hospitals received a letter May 1 from the secretary of the state Department of Health and Human Services, Dr. Mandy Cohen, notifying us that the elective and non-urgent procedures and surgeries can be resumed in accordance with guidance developed by the North Carolina Healthcare Association (NCHA)," Avery said. 

Novant and Wake Forest Baptist hospitals also plan to resume elective procedures, according to the Winston-Salem Journal. PolitiFact called and emailed those health systems, but neither responded to questions about Daniel’s claim.

Our ruling

Sen. Daniel tweeted: "It’s being reported that NC DHHS is telling hospitals that if they decide to do elective surgeries, they won’t be eligible to receive PPE from the state." Let’s break that down.

The only "report" Daniel cited -- and the only report PolitiFact could track down -- was a conversation between a DHHS staffer and a representative for the North Carolina Healthcare Association. DHHS denied that the staffer said what the association’s representative claimed, describing their conversation as a misunderstanding. 

Daniel said "DHHS is telling hospitals" about the conditions for receiving PPE. But hospitals who spoke to PolitiFact said they were never given the alleged ultimatum. 

Daniel’s tweet also tied the ultimatum to secretary Cohen. But, in her email to PolitiFact, the association’s representative didn’t tie the "notion" to Cohen, and we couldn’t find any other evidence that DHHS threatened to withhold PPE from hospitals that resumed elective surgeries. 

This leaves us with a he said-she said situation about a claim that never came to fruition. Given Daniel’s claim lacks evidence, we rate it false.

Our Sources

A tweet by North Carolina state Senator Warren Daniel, who represents Avery, Burke and Caldwell counties.

Email correspondence with NC Sen. Warren Daniel.

A March 20, 2020 letter by Mandy Cohen, leader of NC’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Email and telephone correspondence with Leah Burns, senior director of government relations for the NC Healthcare Association.

Email correspondence with Amy Ellis, spokeswoman for NC DHHS.

Email correspondence with Alan Wolf, spokesman for UNC Health.

Email correspondence with Sarah Avery, spokeswoman for Duke Health.

Story by the News & Observer, "As fear of COVID-19 surge subsides, NC hospitals resume non-urgent surgeries," posted April 28, 2020.

Story by the Winston-Salem Journal, "Novant, Wake Forest Baptist plan to resume elective surgeries, some in-person appointments in May," posted April 23, 2020.

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No evidence that Mandy Cohen threatened to withhold PPE from NC hospitals

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