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.
Then word emerged that Barbot had had a heated clash in March with a top police commander over allocating a then-scant stockpile of face masks.
A New York Post report said Barbot had used crass language to dismiss police Chief of Department Terence Monahan’s push for more masks for officers. At the time, public health experts were worried about having enough protective gear for health workers treating coronavirus patients.
While the health department said Barbot had apologized to Monahan, police unions and a congressman called for her firing. At the time, de Blasio stood by Barbot. “We’re going to move forward together,” the mayor said then.
He said Tuesday that her departure was “not about one thing.” It had become clear in recent days, he said, that “it was time for a change.”
The Health Department said Barbot wouldn’t comment further. But in an email to de Blasio obtained by The New York Times, she said she was leaving with “deep disappointment” that department staffers’ “incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been,” and that “the city would be well served by having them at the strategic center of the response, not in the background.”
In her memo to the staff, Barbot said it had been an honor to lead the agency during some of the city’s most challenging moments.
And, she added: “I am proud that as a woman of color raised in public housing in this city, I always put public health, racial equity and the well-being of the city I love first.”
Updated Tuesday, August 4, 2020 at 2:07 pm .