Phases of a Pandemic Surge: The Experience of an Ethics Service in New York City during COVID-19

Barrie J. Huberman, Debjani Mukherjee, Ezra Gabbay, Samantha F. Knowlton, Douglas S.T. Green, Nekee Pandya, Nicole Meredith, Joan M. Walker, Zachary E. Shapiro, Jennifer E. Hersh, Mary F. Chisholm, Seth A. Waldman, C. Ronald MacKenzie, Inmaculada de Melo-Martín, Joseph J. Fins

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


When the COVID-19 surge hit New York City hospitals, the Division of Medical Ethics at Weill Cornell Medical College, and our affiliated ethics consultation services, faced waves of ethical issues sweeping forward with intensity and urgency. In this article, we describe our experience over an eight-week period (16 March through 10 May 2020), and describe three types of services: clinical ethics consultation (CEC); service practice communications/interventions (SPCI); and organizational ethics advisement (OEA). We tell this narrative through the prism of time, describing the evolution of ethical issues and trends as the pandemic unfolded. We delineate three phases: anticipation and preparation, crisis management, and reflection and adjustment. The first phase focused predominantly on ways to address impending resource shortages and to plan for remote ethics consultation, and CECs focused on code status discussions with surrogates. The second phase was characterized by the dramatic convergence of a rapid increase in the number of critically ill patients, a growing scarcity of resources, and the reassignment/redeployment of staff outside their specialty areas. The third phase was characterized by the recognition that while the worst of the crisis was waning, its medium- and long-term consequences continued to pose immense challenges. We note that there were times during the crisis that serving in the role of clinical ethics consultant created a sense of dis-ease as novel as the coronavirus itself. In retrospect we learned that our activities far exceeded the familiar terrain of clinical ethics consultation and extended into other spheres of organizational life in novel ways that were unanticipated before this pandemic. To that end, we defined and categorized a middle level of ethics consultation, which we have termed service practice communication intervention (SPCI). This is an underappreciated dimension of the work that ethics consult services are capable of in times of crisis. We believe that the pandemic has revealed the many enduring ways that ethics consultation services can more robustly contribute to the ethical life of their institutions moving forward.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)219-227
Number of pages9
JournalThe Journal of clinical ethics
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2020


  • Academic Medical Centers
  • Betacoronavirus
  • Coronavirus Infections/epidemiology
  • Ethics Consultation/organization & administration
  • Humans
  • New York City/epidemiology
  • Pandemics/ethics
  • Pneumonia, Viral/epidemiology

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Health Policy
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects


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