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New York Health Commissioner Resigns After Criticism Over Nursing Homes

·3 min read

(Bloomberg) -- New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker, who was central to allegations that former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration covered up Covid nursing-home deaths, has submitted his resignation.

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Governor Kathy Hochul, who replaced the scandal-plagued Cuomo in August, announced Zucker’s move Thursday during a virus briefing in New York City. When asked whether she had requested his resignation, Hochul reiterated her plans to build a new leadership team, and said Zucker will remain commissioner until she finds a replacement.

“I thank Dr. Zucker for his willingness to stay on board so we don’t have a gap in leadership,” she said.

Zucker, 62, was appointed by Cuomo in 2015. Decisions of the Cuomo administration and health department under Zucker came under fire after Attorney General Letitia James released a report in January showing officials undercounted Covid-related deaths in New York nursing homes by as much as 50%. The report also detailed a lack of compliance with infection-control policies at many nursing homes on Zucker’s watch.

Zucker and Cuomo have denied the allegations.

“There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public health service in New York State,” Zucker said in his resignation letter.

Zucker said he believes the most difficult aspects of the pandemic are over in the state. Tendering his resignation, Zucker said he plans to help “provide for a smooth transition.” He did not say what he plans to do next, but said he will pursue new opportunities that “explore the hurdles and unknowns in medicine, policy and public health.”

‘Doogie Howser’

A Bronx native who graduated from medical school at age 22, Zucker was thought to be the inspiration for the television show “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” about a young doctor. As the state’s chief physician, Zucker was the principal public health expert throughout the Covid pandemic, and regularly appeared next to the governor at his daily briefings during Cuomo’s televised pandemic news briefings.

The Cuomo administration had faced criticism for a March 2020 health department advisory that required nursing homes to admit patients with Covid-19, a bid to free up bed space in hospitals. At least 4,000 nursing-home residents died after that order, according to the attorney general’s January report.

Cuomo defended the decision, saying the state was following federal guidelines, and the health department later released a report attributing the spread of the virus in nursing homes to workers rather than patients.

Cuomo, a three-term Democrat, resigned under pressure following a report from James that documented several claims of sexual harassment. James and the state Assembly Judiciary Committee had been investigating the harassment for months.

The Assembly also was looking at the nursing-home death claims, along with allegations that Cuomo provided relatives with virus testing before it was widely available, mishandled construction of the Mario Cuomo Bridge across the Hudson River and misused public resources to write “American Crisis: Leadership Lessons from the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

Hochul, who was lieutenant governor, in recent weeks has worked to clear her administration of those connected to Cuomo.

The new commissioner must by law be a physician, Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried, a Democrat, told Bloomberg prior to the announcement. It’s important to have someone with raw medical knowledge, an “excellent grounding” in public health, a strong commitment to public service, and “the right values.”

State Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat, prior to the announcement told Bloomberg he respected Zucker, but said it seemed like he “played defense” for the governor and was misleading about what information was available. “One has to be judged by their actions,” Rivera said.

(Adds Zucker’s comments beginning in sixth paragraph.)

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