NYC health commissioner resigns after friction over COVID-19

New York City's top public health official resigned Tuesday in a shake-up that followed months of tension over the city's response to the coronavirus pandemic and comes as officials are anxiously striving to keep it in check.

After batting away earlier speculation about Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot's future in her job, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that she'd be replaced by Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, an official and primary care physician in the city's public hospital system. 

Barbot told staffers in an internal memo that she was leaving because their "talents must be better leveraged alongside that of our sister agencies" and the virus fight needs to proceed "without distractions" as the city braces for an expected eventual second surge. 

De Blasio, a Democrat, thanked Barbot for her "important work" during the spike that made New York the deadliest coronavirus hotspot in the country this spring. But he said at a news conference that the city needs "a new leader for our Department of Health who could bring together the skills we need at this moment." 

"We need an atmosphere of unity," he said, and pledged Chokshi would "lead the charge forward in our fight for a fairer and healthier city for all."

Before coming to New York City's health department, Chokshi worked in Louisiana's Department of Health before and after Hurricane Katrina's devastating 2005 blow, served as a White House fellow in the Obama administration and worked for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs.

Chokshi emphasized that the pandemic had spotlighted a "vicious cycle of illness and inequity." 

"I'm not daunted by the challenges. I'm motivated by them," said the physician, who noted that he was a son of immigrants. 

Barbot, a pediatrician who was Baltimore's health commissioner from 2010 to 2014, was appointed as health commissioner in her native New York City in December 2018. She was the first Latina to head the agency.

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

But her tenure began to seem shaky during the coronavirus crisis. 

In May, as the health department was gearing up a massive expansion of its efforts to trace the contacts of infected people, de Blasio suddenly shifted oversight of the program to the public hospital agency, called Health+Hospitals. 

Then word emerged that Barbot had had a heated clash in March with a top police commander over-allocating a then-scant stockpile of face masks. 

A New York Post report said Barbot had used crass language to dismiss police Chief of Department Terence Monahan's push for more masks for officers. At the time, public health experts were worried about having enough protective gear for health workers treating coronavirus patients.

While the health department said Barbot had apologized to Monahan, police unions and a congressman called for her firing. At the time, de Blasio stood by  Barbot. "We're going to move forward together," the mayor said then.

He said Tuesday that her departure was "not about one thing." It had become clear in recent days, he said, that "it was time for a change."

The Health Department said Barbot wouldn't comment further. But in an email to de Blasio, she said she was leaving with "deep disappointment" that department staffers' "incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been," according to The New York Times. 

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"The city would be well served by having them at the strategic center of the response, not in the background," she wrote, according to the newspaper, which said it had seen a copy of the message.

City Council member Carlina Rivera, a Democrat who heads the council's hospitals committee, said Barbot's departure showed the mayor was making "political-first decisions" about public health. She said he hadn't clearly explained what mistakes Barbot might have made.

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

De Blasio has often noted that the city began making plans in January. Still, New York, like other cities and states, found itself alarmingly short of protective gear and ventilators, and some decisions turned into rapid-fire reversals.

The mayor held off closing schools after other large cities announced they were doing so, though he changed course the day after the city's first coronavirus death was reported. 

Officials gave shifting messages on wearing masks, initially advising it only for sick people and health care workers. Barbot said in mid-March that masks could give people "a false sense of security," emphasizing hand-washing and covering coughs instead. By April 2, de Blasio recommended all city residents cover their faces in public. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued similar guidance weeks later.

The city turned the tide eventually. Coronavirus deaths now number in the single or low double digits per day. 

In her memo to the staff, Barbot said it had been an honor to lead the agency during some of the city's most challenging moments. 

And, she added: "I am proud that as a woman of color raised in public housing in this city, I always put public health, racial equity and the well-being of the city I love first."