New York Health Commissioner resigns after COVID-19 friction

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New York’s top public health official resigned Tuesday in an upheaval that followed months of tension over the city’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and comes as officials anxiously strive to keep it under control .

After brushing aside previous speculation about the future of Health Commissioner Dr Oxiris Barbot in her work, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that she would be replaced by Dr Dave A. Chokshi, official doctor and primary care in the city’s public hospital system.

Barbot told staff members in an internal memo that she was leaving because “their talents need to be better exploited alongside those of our sister agencies” and the fight against the virus needs to be “distraction-free” as the city ​​is preparing for a possible second outbreak.

De Blasio, a Democrat, thanked Barbot for his “important job” during the peak that made New York City the nation’s deadliest coronavirus hotspot this spring. But he told a press conference that the city needed “a new leader for our health ministry who could bring together the skills we need right now.”

“We need an atmosphere of unity,” he said, and pledged that Chokshi “will lead the charge in our fight for a fairer and healthier city for all”.

Prior to joining the New York City Department of Health, Chokshi worked in the Louisiana Department of Health before and after the devastating blow from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, was a member of the White House in administration Obama and worked for the Federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Chokshi said the pandemic had brought to light a “vicious cycle of disease and inequity”.

“I am not discouraged by the challenges. I’m motivated by them, ”said the doctor, who noted he was a son of immigrants.

Barbot, a pediatrician who served as Baltimore’s health commissioner from 2010 to 2014, was appointed health commissioner in her hometown of New York in December 2018. She was the first Latina to lead the agency.

At the time, de Blasio said she had “the right set of skills at the right time”.

But his tenure began to look shaky during the coronavirus crisis.

In May, as the health department prepared for a massive expansion of its efforts to trace the contacts of those infected, de Blasio suddenly transferred oversight of the program to the hospital’s public agency, called Health + Hospitals.

Then it emerged that Barbot had had a heated clash in March with a senior police commander who had over-allocated a then limited supply of face masks.

A New York Post report said Barbot used foul language to deny the request of Police Department chief Terence Monahan for more masks for officers. At the time, public health experts were concerned that they would have sufficient protective equipment for health workers treating patients with coronavirus.

While the health department said Barbot had apologized to Monahan, police unions and a congressman called for his dismissal. At the time, de Blasio was alongside Barbot. “We will move forward together,” the mayor then declared.

He said Tuesday his departure was “not a question”. It had become clear in recent days, he said, that “it is time for a change”.

The Health Ministry said Barbot would not comment. But in an email to de Blasio, she said she left with “deep disappointment” that “the incomparable disease control expertise of the staff in the department was not utilized as it could have been, ”according to the New York Times.

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“The city would be well served by placing them at the strategic center of the response, not in the background,” she wrote, according to the newspaper, which said she saw a copy of the message.

City council member Carlina Rivera, a Democrat who heads the council’s hospital committee, said Barbot’s departure showed the mayor was making “political decisions first” about public health. She said he had not clearly explained the mistakes Barbot might have made.

New York City has one of the oldest and strongest local public health departments in the country. But the ferocity of the pandemic took the city by surprise. In a matter of weeks, in March and April, confirmed deaths from COVID-19 across the city rose from a handful to nearly 600 a day. Some hospitals were overwhelmed with patients.

De Blasio has often noted that the city started making plans in January. Yet New York City, like other cities and states, ran out of protective gear and ventilators, and some decisions turned into quick reversals.

The mayor delayed closing schools after other major cities announced they were doing so, though he changed course the day after the city’s first coronavirus death.

Officials have given shifting messages about wearing masks, initially advising only sick people and healthcare workers. Barbot said in mid-March that masks can give people “a false sense of security,” emphasizing handwashing and cough coverage. On April 2, de Blasio recommended that all residents of the city cover their faces in public. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released similar guidelines weeks later.

The city has finally turned the tide. Coronavirus deaths are now single or double digits per day.

In his memo to staff, Barbot said it had been an honor to lead the agency during some of the city’s toughest times.

And, she added, “I am proud that as a woman of color raised in social housing in this city, I always put public health, racial equity and the well-being of the city that I like above all ”.

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