NYC public health chief resigns; tensions brewed in pandemic

Regional News

FILE – In this Wednesday, Feb. 26, 2020, file photo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, left, is shown with Dr. Oxiris Barbot, commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, in New York. New York City abruptly replaced Barbot, its top public health official, Tuesday, Aug. 4, 2020, at a key point in its fight to keep the coronavirus from surging again. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan, File)

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NEW YORK (AP) — New York City abruptly replaced its top public health official Tuesday at a key point in its fight to keep the coronavirus from surging again. 

After months of public speculation about Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot’s future in her job, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that she’d be replaced by Dr. Dave A. Chokshi, an official and primary care physician in the city’s public hospital system. 

Barbot told staffers in an internal memo that she resigned because as the city braces for an expected eventual second surge of the coronavirus, the staff’s “talents must be better leveraged alongside that of our sister agencies” and the virus fight needs to proceed “without distractions.”

De Blasio, a Democrat, thanked Barbot for her “important work” during the crisis that made New York the deadliest coronavirus hotspot in the country this spring. But he said at a news conference that the city needs “a new leader for our Department of Health who could bring together the skills we need at this moment.” 

De Blasio said New Yorkers “need an atmosphere of unity” and common purpose in its public health effort. 

“It became clear that there was a need to move forward,” he added.

He said Chokshi would “lead the charge forward in our fight for a fairer and healthier city for all.”

Chokshi emphasized that the pandemic had spotlighted a “vicious cycle of illness and inequity.” 

“I’m not daunted by the challenges. I’m motivated by them,” said the physician, who noted that he was a son of immigrants. 

Before coming to New York City’s health department, he worked in Louisiana’s Department of Health before and after Hurricane Katrina’s devastating 2005 blow, served as a White House fellow in the Obama administration and worked for the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Barbot, a pediatrician who was Baltimore’s health commissioner from 2010 to 2014, was appointed as health commissioner in her native New York City in December 2018, becoming the first Latina to head the agency.

At the time, de Blasio said she had “the right set of skills at the right time.”

But her tenure began to seem shaky during the coronavirus crisis. 

In May, as the health department was gearing up a massive expansion of its efforts to trace the contacts of infected people, de Blasio suddenly shifted oversight of the program to the public hospital agency, called Health+Hospitals.

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