Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city will keep a close eye on the Christian fundamentalist group operating a field hospital in Central Park, amid growing fears that some New Yorkers could face discrimination and substandard care from the religious organization.
The 60-bed respiratory care unit will handle overflow patients from Mount Sinai, as the hospital grapples with a surge in novel coronavirus cases. Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical nonprofit led by the virulently anti-LGBTQ and Islamaphobic preacher Franklin Graham, will handle operations.
While de Blasio said he was troubled to learn of Graham’s past comments, the mayor told reporters on Tuesday that he was assured the group will act in a manner “truly consistent with the values and the laws of New York City.” He said he spoke personally with Mount Sinai CEO Dr. Ken Davis, who told him Samaritan’s Purse had signed a written pledge to treat all patients equally.
“We’re going to send people over from the Mayor’s Office to monitor,” de Blasio said. “I am very concerned that this is done right. But if it is done right, we need all the help we can get.”
The evangelical organization exclusively recruits Christian healthcare workers for its missions, including the Central Park facility. All volunteers are asked to support a statement of faith, which condemns gay marriage and abortion, and asserts that those who don’t accept Jesus Christ will face “everlasting punishment in hell.”
Though the city initially said the facility would be jointly operated by Mount Sinai and Samaritan’s Purse, the hospital system later clarified this is not the case. “The Hospital personnel are not Mount Sinai employees but paid staff of Samaritan’s Purse,” said Lucia Lee, the Senior Director of Media & Public Affairs at Mount Sinai Health System.
A spokesperson for Samaritan’s Purse would not say whether they would work with medical personnel who are not Christian or those who decline to affirm the faith statement. The tent hospital was initially set to start receiving patients on Tuesday, though its opening has since been delayed.
According to an emergency room doctor at Mount Sinai, the additional capacity is desperately needed, as conditions inside local hospitals begin to “explode.” At the same time, he said, there are legitimate concerns about the religious group staffing the respiratory care units.
“Anytime there’s a disaster, there’s going to be people taking advantage,” said the doctor, who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak on the record. “We should not be politicizing health care in times of need, which is what this organization is all about.”
In addition to erecting the hospital, the group has also deployed a mobile ministry center to New York City.
This is very disturbing. We need reassurances from the city and from Mt. Sinai that Samaritan’s Purse and its volunteers will be monitored, and that the LGBTQ community will not be discriminated against in any way. This is a crisis, but our values remain. https://t.co/eWHzIivjtM
— NYC Council Speaker Corey Johnson (@NYCSpeakerCoJo) March 30, 2020
Graham’s offers of humanitarian aid have come under scrutiny in the past. Missions in several Muslim countries, as well as El Salvador, have been criticized for allegedly operating as covert conversion schemes.
The group’s intervention in West Africa during the Ebola outbreak also offers a warning about their ability to handle the current COVID-19 crisis, experts said. After establishing a medical treatment center in Liberia, Samaritan’s Purse and another relief group quickly evacuated two medical units once a medical doctor and aid worker contracted the disease. One study found they provided “little clinical benefit” under the operational constraints.
“This is a dangerous religious propaganda machine that uses international medical aid to further their agenda,” said Jacklyn Grace Lacey, a medical anthropologist who has closely tracked the Ebola response. “The medical care they provide is dangerously sub-standard.”
She added that the optics of the group setting up a facility in such an iconic location as Central Park were not a coincidence.
“The Graham family is well trained in how to create a spectacle,” Lacey said. “I am tremendously concerned they will hurt far more of our fellow New Yorkers than they will help.”
Speaking to Sean Hannity on Tuesday night, Graham attempted to assuage fears about his group’s role in fighting the public health crisis.
“We’re going to give the best health care we can to all New Yorkers, it doesn’t matter who they are or what they are,” he said. “We’re going to give them the best medical care that we possibly can in Jesus’ name.”
Inquiries to the State Department of Health, which approved the facility, were not returned.