New York health commissioner resigns after clashes over virus

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) – New York City’s health commissioner, Dr Oxiris Barbot, resigned Tuesday (Aug 4) to protest her “deep disappointment” with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the pandemic, renewing scrutiny of his leadership during the crisis just as the city faces pressing decisions about how quickly to reopen schools and businesses.

Her departure came after escalating tensions between City Hall and top city health department officials, which had begun at the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March, burst into public view and raised concerns that the feuding was undermining crucial public health policies.

Current and former health officials said the departure of Dr Oxiris Barbot (left) reflected Mayor Bill de Blasio's history of distrust in his health department.
Current and former health officials said the departure of Dr Oxiris Barbot (left) reflected Mayor Bill de Blasio’s history of distrust in his health department.PHOTO: NYTIMES

De Blasio immediately announced a replacement for Barbot, which suggested that she had resigned because she believed that she was about to be dismissed or demoted.

“I leave my post today with deep disappointment that during the most critical public health crisis in our lifetime, that the health department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been,” Barbot said in her resignation email sent to de Blasio, a copy of which was shared with The New York Times.

“Our experts are world renowned for their epidemiology, surveillance and response work. The city would be well served by having them at the strategic centre of the response not in the background.”

At a hastily called news conference after her resignation, de Blasio defended his handling of the outbreak, saying that the city had made “extraordinary progress.”

The virus took a devastating toll in the spring, killing more than 20,000 residents, but it has largely ebbed in recent weeks.

On Monday, for example, only 316 people in the city tested positive out of more than 30,000 tested.

Still, the turnover in the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene comes at a pivotal moment: Public schools are scheduled to partially open next month – which could be crucial for the city’s recovery – and fears are growing that the outbreak could surge again when the weather cools.

“It had been clear in recent days that it was time for a change,” de Blasio said of Barbot.

“We need an atmosphere of unity. We need an atmosphere of common purpose.”

The mayor announced the appointment of a new health commissioner, Dr Dave Chokshi, a former senior leader at Health + Hospitals, the city’s public hospital system.

Current and former health officials said the departure of Barbot reflected de Blasio’s history of distrust in his health department.

From early in the coronavirus outbreak, he has clashed with the department on testing, public messaging and how quickly to shutter schools.

De Blasio has been faulted for resisting calls to close down schools and businesses, which some epidemiologists believe worsened the outbreak.

Once he decided on closures, de Blasio pushed for the state to authorise further restrictions, a move ultimately made by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

And in the intervening months, the mayor has moved cautiously in reopening the city, guarding the progress that has been made in controlling the virus.

But even as the outbreak began to ebb in late May, tensions with Barbot mounted.

Some public health officials had bristled at the mayor’s decision to place the city’s contact-tracing program inside NYC Health + Hospitals, a corporation that operates the public hospitals and clinics in New York City.

The health department has performed such tracing for decades; the public hospitals have not.

Barbot disagreed with the move but kept her disapproval private.

Yet the behind-the-scenes tensions flared into public view in May, when an article appeared in the New York Post about a conflict months earlier between Barbot and a police commander who wanted personal protective gear that had been set aside for health workers to be given instead to the police.

The Post quoted Barbot as saying at one point, “I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops.”

Police unions and some elected officials called for her ouster.

At that point, Barbot began to make fewer public appearances as de Blasio seemed to look elsewhere for public health guidance, turning to a new senior adviser, Dr Jay Varma, and to the public hospitals chief, Dr Mitchell Katz.

On Tuesday, de Blasio made clear that he did not believe that Barbot was a team player.

“It’s never about one agency,” he said at one point.

He used the words “teamwork” or “team” 15 times in a 38-minute news conference.

New York City’s health department is regarded as one of the best municipal health agencies in the world. But during the epidemic, the mayor has repeatedly ignored the advice of its top disease-control experts and sidelined the department.

“I think this is the culmination of months of conflict between the health department and City Hall,” said Councilman Mark Levine, who heads the council’s health committee.

“This reflects enormous frustration that global experts in infectious disease are being marginalised in the middle of a pandemic.”

Perhaps the most consequential debate inside City Hall over the coronavirus came during the second week in March.

The city had a small number of positive cases, but its public health system was flashing a warning about the unchecked spread of a flu-like virus.

Barbot and one of her top deputies began urging more restrictions on gatherings.

De Blasio for a time sided instead with Katz, who had been advising City Hall against ordering shutdowns.

Some officials inside the Health Department talked about quitting that week or staging a walkout to force action.

Eventually, top officials and the mayor agreed on the need to lock down the city to stop the spread of the virus.

De Blasio ordered schools closed March 15.

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