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New York’s recently departed FEMA chief isn’t holding back on his way out the door.
In an exit interview with The Post, Tom Von Essen, who served as the New York regional director of the Federal Emergency Management and was city Fire Commissioner during the Sept. 11 attacks, slammed the nation’s early response to the coronavirus pandemic, the slow pace of vaccine distribution — and called New York’s nursing home death toll its “biggest failure” in the crisis.
As FEMA’s regional director, Von Essen, 76, was a pivotal figure in getting medical manpower and personal protective equipment to New York and New Jersey when the pandemic hit the metro-area in the spring. He previously helped FEMA oversee Puerto Rico’s recovery from Hurricane Maria.
“I thought what happened in New York in March, April and May and June would provide a learning lesson for the rest of the country. But it really wasn’t,” said Von Essen, who stepped down on Dec. 21.
“People didn’t take COVID seriously. People thought it was a city problem. They turned out to be wrong. The idiocy cost tens of thousands of deaths,” he said.
He continued, “Did I think what happened in New York would be repeated across the country. No way! This was/is a pandemic that was destined to kill many of us but did not have to be this many and it is nowhere near done yet.”
Von Essen declared that America’s political leadership failed the country — but praised FEMA officials, health care workers and first responders for an “excellent” job.
“The politicians are nauseating. They’re malfeasant,” he said.
He credited President Trump for meeting his pledge to have a COVID-19 vaccine available by year’s end.
But Von Essen flunked the slow pace of distribution of the vaccine by New York and other states — mirroring prior criticism leveled against Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio in recent days, with only a third of the Empire State’s doses making their way into people’s arms as of last week.
Von Essen said time is of the essence because the vaccine could save tens of thousands of lives.
“This process obviously needs to be ramped up and should have been done already. Lots of excuses for us dropping the ball back [early last year], none now,” he said.
“The vaccine is the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re all disappointed because everyone in government had so much time to prepare. But it really hasn’t happened,” he said..
“We’re not doing a good job when you look at the total number of vaccinations. We thought we had 20 million people vaccinated by now. The number is 4 million.”
He said “80 to 90 percent” of doses sent to the state should have been distributed by now, not under 50 percent.
“It’s injecting a needle,” Von Essen said. “Be creative,”
For example, Von Essen said school nurses could be activated to administer the vaccine. Mayor de Blasio last week pledged 1 million city residents will get vaccinated in January, suggesting neighborhood sites including school gymnasiums would be used to expand access.
Von Essen said stripping away other bureaucratic rules in New York that limit the number of people who can administer the vaccine could also boost the pace of inoculation.
“‘Available’ is always a tricky word,” he said of the vaccine. “Where, when, how, to who, the questions to an operations person like me continue to pop up. We see an efficient profit-making business like FEDEX/UPS delivering to who? Vaccinating who?”
He also called “the inability” of New York and New Jersey to stop the massive number of nursing home deaths their “biggest failure” during the outbreak.
“We failed the elderly. We let the elderly down,” he said.
He noted that during the beginning of the pandemic, there was a shortage of PPE that affected nursing homes like other medical facilities because of enormous global demand.
Critics have blamed the death toll of some 7,400 nursing home residents on the Cuomo administration’s policy of forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-positive patients from hospitals, but Van Essen said he’d “leave that assessment to others.”
He nevertheless thinks Cuomo and New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy have done a good job handling the pandemic.
“There was a lot of public bickering between Cuomo and de Blasio but I don’t think it affected our ability to help both when they needed it,” he said.
He noted a second surge of the virus this winter still poses a big challenge for New York before most of the population has an opportunity to get vaccinated.
Military doctors and medics who descended from across the country to aid the Big Apple are no longer available because their own communities are now battling COVID-19.
“I hope it does not get as ugly as the spring. We were fortunate to have so many military docs and specialists that will not be available now,” he said.
Von Essen, who as the FDNY commissioner during Sept. 11 personally grieved over 343 deaths of firefighters and officers, said the pandemic has been far more devastating to the city and predicted it will take longer for the Big Apple to emerge from the pandemic.
“After Sept. 11 those of us who lived it only saw it in lower Manhattan… From the city perspective, the impact of COVID is much worse. Doctors, nurses, EMTs were going to work every day for months where today is worse than yesterday was truly the ultimate example of a dedicated workforce,” he said.