New York City’s health commissioner, Dr. Oxiris Barbot, resigned on Tuesday in protest over her “deep disappointment” with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent efforts to keep it in check.
Her departure came after escalating tensions between City Hall and top Health Department officials, which began at the start of the city’s outbreak in March, burst into public view.
“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,” she said in her resignation email sent to Mr. 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 center of the response not in the background.”
Dr. Barbot’s resignation could renew questions about Mr. de Blasio’s handling of the response to the outbreak, which devastated the city in the spring, killing more than 20,000 residents, even as it has largely subsided in recent weeks. And it 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.
The mayor had been faulted by public health experts, including some within the Health Department, for not moving faster to close down schools and businesses in March, when New York emerged as an epicenter of the pandemic.
Public health officials have bristled at the mayor’s decision to strip the Health Department of its responsibility for contact tracing and give it instead to the public hospital system, known as Health + Hospitals. The Health Department has performed such tracing for decades; the public hospitals have not.
“It had been clear in recent days that it was time for a change,” Mr. de Blasio said in a hastily called news conference. “We need an atmosphere of unity. We need an atmosphere of common purpose.”
The mayor moved quickly to replace Dr. Barbot, immediately announcing the appointment of a new health commissioner, Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, a former senior leader at Health + Hospitals.
At no point in the statement about Dr. Chokshi’s appointment did the mayor thank — or even mention — Dr. Barbot, who had served in his administration since the start of his first term in 2014. Mr. de Blasio did acknowledge her service during the news conference.
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“It’s a bad day for the city. She’s a very qualified commissioner of health,” said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former deputy mayor of health under Mr. de Blasio who worked with Dr. Barbot. “There’s another woman of color that goes down. I think it’s a really regrettable thing.
“This is not a position you can put anybody just because. It’s the premier public health agency in the country,” Ms. Barrios-Paoli added. “It’s just a shame that she did not feel that she was supported by the mayor.”
The turmoil at the top of the city’s health agency emerged in late May over the mayor’s decision to locate the city’s contact-tracing efforts within its public hospital system and not in the Health Department.
The decision caused an eruption from former top public health officials in the city. But Dr. Barbot, a public health expert who had led the department since 2018, did not publicly raise objections to the move. After a private meeting with the mayor, she remained in her role.
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