NYC Health Commissioner Leaves Post Amid Tensions With de Blasio

Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, with Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, listens to a reporter’s question in New York on Feb. 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

MANHATTAN (CN) — New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot resigned Tuesday, but it was unclear whether she was forced out or quit in protest over the way Mayor Bill de Blasio has handled the pandemic.

“I leave my post today with deep disappointment that during the most critical public health crisis in our lifetime, the Health Department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been,” she complained in a parting email to de Blasio.

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

The mayor was apparently prepared for the move, however, immediately announcing that Barbot would be succeeded by Dave Chokshi, a former official at the public hospital department.

“It had been clear in recent days that it was time for a change,” de Blasio said at a press conference. “We need an atmosphere of unity. We need an atmosphere of common purpose.”

De Blasio has previously been seen as favoring the hospital department over the health department. In May, he gave the hospital department control over contact tracing, something the health department had handled in the past.

Barbot created controversy in May when she got into a heated argument with a police official over providing personal protective equipment to officers. She later publicly apologized for “leaving any impression whatsoever that I don’t have utmost respect for our police department.”

The change in leadership comes at a crucial moment as the city is preparing to partially open schools in the fall.

Although the pandemic has been subsiding in the city, the coronavirus killed 20,000 residents this year, and the mayor has faced criticism for his response. In particular, some officials in the health department complained that he should have shut schools and businesses more quickly in March.

Chokshi is a Rhodes scholar who held several positions in the Obama administration.

“Dr. Chokshi has spent his career fighting for those too often left behind,” de Blasio said. “Never has that been more true than during the Covid-19 pandemic, where he has helped lead our city’s public health system under unprecedented challenges.”

Barbot told her department in an email: “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.”

Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former deputy mayor of health, said losing Barbot was a blow to the city.  

“There’s another woman of color that goes down. I think it’s a really regrettable thing,” she told the New York Times.

Mark Levine, a member of the city council’s health committee, tweeted that Barbot’s resignation “is a grave blow to the fight for public health here. Dr. Barbot has stood up fearlessly and consistently on behalf of science, no matter how strong the opposition.”

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