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Hochul appoints new health commissioner, copes with vaccine mandate staffing shortages

Governor Hochul's office


Gov. Kathy Hochul has named former New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett to lead the state’s health department.

The announcement comes less than a week after current Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, the controversial appointee of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, said he would resign as soon as a replacement can be found.

Bassett, a 30-year veteran in health care policy making, will take over on Dec. 1.  She is currently at Harvard University, managing departments in the School of Public Health and the Center for Health and Human Rights.

She served as New York City’s health commissioner from 2014 until 2018. There, she oversaw the city’s response to the Ebola epidemic and the Zika virus, and developed neighborhood health centers. Bassett, an African American, also spoke up in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. She left for Harvard during a controversy over the city’s failure to properly inspect lead paint in public housing.

Her appointment was heralded by the County Health Officials of New York organization, which said in a statement that Bassett’s appointment “sends a strong signal that public health and disparities in health status are critical priorities for Governor Hochul.”

State Senate Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera called the appointment “historic” and said he hopes it signals a “new direction” at the department and “will encourage capable and public health-oriented professionals to join the agency after so many departed due to the previous administration’s lack of commitment to investing in public health.” 

The outgoing Zucker was implicated in an alleged cover-up of the true number of nursing home deaths during the height of pandemic in New York in the spring of 2020.  A federal investigation is ongoing. Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

The leadership change comes as Hochul is coping with fallout from a Sept. 27 vaccine mandate for health care workers in New York state. Employees who refuse to get vaccinated are losing their jobs, intensifying an existing staffing shortage.

The governor issued an emergency order Monday evening to speed up the replacement of unvaccinated nurses, doctors and other health care workers with foreign workers, retirees and newly graduated health care workers. She also now has the authority to call on the state’s National Guard to help out.

“It doesn’t have to be this way. It does not. And it's not a role I relish,” Hochul said in a news conference on Monday. “It’s been proven to be safe. The vaccine’s been out there a long time now.”

Hochul, who has not answered questions from the media since she issued the emergency order, released a written update Wednesday that indicates things aren’t as bad as initially feared. She said vaccinations among health care workers surged in the hours before the deadline, and 87% of hospital staff are now fully vaccinated, and 92% have received at least one dose.

She also said 92% of nursing home employees have also received at least one dose, as have 89% of workers at adult care facilities.

The governor said the health department has opened an emergency operations center to assist health care providers. She said no hospitals have had to close because of a staffing shortage.

Nevertheless, hundreds of hospital workers around the state who refused the vaccine have been terminated or placed on administrative leave.

Tammy Reynolds is associate vice president of nursing operations at the Alice Hyde Medical Center in Malone in the North Country, a region that has a 5% coronavirus infection rate, the highest in the state. The small hospital has lost 16 employees who refused to get vaccinated; 29 are seeking a religious exemption, and seven are claiming a medical exemption. She said inpatient beds have been filled to capacity for months.

“Our staff are exhausted. Each day they deal with COVID, increased volumes at work,” said Reynolds, who added most are also dealing with pandemic-related issues at home, like remote learning for their school-aged children, and quarantines.

“Now they are being put in a place where they have to choose to be vaccinated or lose their jobs,” she said.

Hochul’s executive order was criticized by the head of the state’s Republican Party, Nick Langworthy, who said the mandate is unconstitutional because teachers and other public workers are given the option of submitting to weekly testing instead.

“But these folks here get an ultimatum and a pink slip,” Langworthy said. “And a kick in the butt and sent out the door. It’s wrong. They should have a test-out option just like every other employee in this state.”

Langworthy also said it’s an “abuse” of the state’s National Guard to require them to work in hospitals instead of qualified health care workers who don’t want to be vaccinated.

The mandate is the subject of numerous lawsuits now proceeding in the courts.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.