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NYC public health chief resigns after friction over COVID-19

August 5, 2020 Jennifer Peltz and Karen Matthews Associated Press
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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 wave.

De Blasio said at a news conference that “it had been clear, certainly in recent days, that it was time for a change.”

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But other city leaders were taken aback by Barbot’s departure at a moment when the city is facing such key health questions as whether and how to reopen schools safely.

Jumaane Williams, the city’s elected public advocate, called the circumstances of Barbot’s resignation “troubling” and “a great loss for a city in need.” City Council Hospitals Committee chair Carlina Rivera said the mayor was making “political-first decisions” about public health and hadn’t clearly explained what mistakes Barbot might have made.

Williams and Rivera — both Democrats, as is de Blasio — said the administration hadn’t given Barbot due support as she tried to chart a scientific course under the extraordinary pressures of the pandemic.

De Blasio thanked Barbot for her “important work” and said her departure was her decision.

“We need an atmosphere of unity” for the challenges ahead, he added, pledging that 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.

The Health Department said Tuesday Barbot wouldn’t comment beyond the internal memo — in which she said, among other remarks, that she was “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.”

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.

“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.

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 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.

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,” and she emphasized 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.

Nationwide, the average number of COVID-19 deaths per day has gone from about 780 to 1,056 over the past two weeks, according to an Associated Press analysis.

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