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Dr. Mary Bassett confirmed as state health commissioner

Dr. Mary Bassett, the state's health commissioner, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 2, 2021.
Mike Wren
New York State Department of Health
Dr. Mary Bassett, the state's health commissioner, speaks at a news conference on Dec. 2, 2021.

The state Senate on Thursday confirmed Gov. Kathy Hochul's choice of Dr. Mary Bassett as New York state’s new health commissioner.

She replaces the controversial Dr. Howard Zucker, who left three months after former Governor Andrew Cuomo resigned.

Bassett is a 35-year veteran of the public health field who previously led New York City’s health department. She most recently was director of Harvard University’s François-Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights. She is the first African-American health commissioner in New York state.

On the job as acting commissioner since Dec. 1, Bassett is becoming familiar to New Yorkers in television ads promoting COVID-19 vaccinations for schoolchildren.

Democrats voted unanimously to confirm Bassett, but some Republicans objected, citing remarks she made during her confirmation hearing Wednesday when asked about her predecessor.

Zucker was accused of helping Cuomo hide the true number of nursing home deaths during the early stages of the pandemic, and going along with a controversial March 25, 2020, executive order that required nursing homes to take back from hospitals COVID-positive residents.

Attorney General Tish James found that nursing home deaths were underreported by 50%.

Both Zucker and Cuomo have denied they did anything wrong.

During the confirmation hearing, Republican Sen. Jim Tedisco asked Bassett about the March 25 directive.

Tedisco asked Bassett “what lesson you might have learned” from the previous commissioner to place residents in hospitals who tested positive for the coronavirus “into our most vulnerable population, individuals who are elderly and compromised, in our nursing homes.”

Bassett told Tedisco that she has never read the March 25 order, and does not intend to revisit the former administration’s nursing home policies. She said she prefers instead to be transparent in the future.

“I decided when I took up this post that I wasn’t going to try and unravel what had happened in the nursing homes under the previous commissioner,” said Bassett. “But simply look forward.”

Tedisco voted against the nomination, as did Republican Sen. Sue Serino, who told Bassett during the hearing that she objects to that decision.

“I can’t begin to tell you how disappointed I am with hearing your answers about this,” said Serino, who added that decisions made in emergency situations need to be reassessed later to see “what was done right and what was done wrong,” so that they can be corrected for the future.

“And I believe that that needs to be done,” Serino said.

Bassett assured the senators that she would never take any action that could harm people’s health, saying that if a governor asked her to do so, she’d resign first.

“I’m a doctor first and foremost. I will never give advice that I think would harm people,” Bassett said. “And I won’t agree to follow it.”

On the Senate floor, Health Committee Chair Gustavo Rivera -- a Democrat who was vocal in speaking out about the Cuomo administration’s nursing home policies -- said he’s confident that Bassett represents a change in direction.

“She said very clearly that she would never do something that she felt, even if it was said to her, ‘This is something you need to do for political reasons,’ that she would never do something that would put the health and well-being of New Yorkers at risk,” Rivera said.

Other Republican senators said they disagree with Bassett’s support of pandemic-related mandates, like the statewide mask requirement in indoor public spaces. Bassett said she will continue to back such requirements as long as the science supports it.

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.