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New York State needs a trusted voice as health commissioner

October 6, 2021 By Albany Times Union via AP
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The damage Andrew Cuomo and Dr. Howard Zucker did to the state Department of Health is immeasurable. Time and time again, the former governor and his health commissioner subsumed the department’s integrity to the burnishing of Mr. Cuomo’s reputation — and to their everlasting shame, the men did so even as New York was confronting the COVID-19 pandemic.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the intentional underreporting of nursing home deaths after the controversial mandate requiring that the facilities accept COVID-positive patients. In an effort apparently aimed at limiting any negative impact to the velocity of what was then Mr. Cuomo’s rising star, the administration and Dr. Zucker’s department manipulated COVID-19 data reported to the public, cleansed an official report of accurate numbers and stonewalled state legislators and reporters seeking an honest death count.

Dr. Howard A. Zucker, then-commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, speaks during a news conference on coronavirus vaccination at Suffolk County Community College on Monday, April 12, 2021.
Michael M. Santiago/Pool via AP

That scandal was enough to warrant Mr. Cuomo and Dr. Zucker losing their jobs, but, alas, it wasn’t the end. Those misdeeds were accompanied by the VIP COVID-19 testing afforded to the former governor’s friends and family — a wholly inappropriate and perhaps illegal program that used public resources, including top Health Department officials and state troopers, to hurry samples to and through the Wadsworth Laboratory in Albany.

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The importance of that should be obvious. At a time when mask and vaccine mandates and other pandemic measures have become deeply politicized and are viewed with suspicion by a significant chunk of the public, it is all the more crucial for New Yorkers to believe their health commissioner is looking out for their best interests. At the least, New Yorkers should be able to trust that data coming from the department is accurate.

English language arts teacher Frank Esposito submits to a COVID-19 nasal swab test at West Brooklyn Community High School. New York City has now required all of its teachers to get coronavirus vaccines.
AP file photo by Kathy Willens

Last month, Dr. Zucker at last submitted his letter of resignation. While he will stay on until a replacement is found, the onus is on Ms. Hochul to find a suitable replacement.

What’s needed is an agency leader who will put public health ahead of political expediency, a commissioner who will remain determinedly independent.

What’s required is a person deserving of trust as the state confronts the continuing COVID-19 pandemic and public health concerns yet to come.

What New York needs, in other words, is a health commissioner who will succeed where Dr. Zucker failed.

Cristina Licup, left, waits to receive her COVID-19 booster shot where she works at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in New York, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021.
AP Photo/Seth Wenig

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