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NYC's Health Commissioner Resigns After Clashes With Mayor


The head of New York City's health department has resigned. Dr. Oxiris Barbot is leaving one of the country's biggest health departments in a city, of course, that got hit very hard by COVID-19.

Fred Mogul of WNYC has been covering this story. Good morning, Fred.

FRED MOGUL, BYLINE: Hi, there. Good morning.

KING: Why did Dr. Barbot resign?

MOGUL: Well, yesterday, Dr. Barbot released a resignation letter catching Mayor Bill de Blasio and his team off guard. They had lined up a new health commissioner, and Barbot seems to have gotten wind of it and essentially said, you can't fire me; I quit. Her successor is a primary care doctor, a public hospital executive named Dr. Dave Chokshi. What it's really about is this. There've been several core disagreements within the administration about how to fight the coronavirus pandemic. Tensions had been simmering for months, and de Blasio had largely sidelined Barbot and the health department. This is an agency, mind you, that prides itself on being like the Harvard of health departments - the disease fighters that everyone else should follow.

KING: So why would Mayor de Blasio sideline them, especially during a pandemic?

MOGUL: Well, his critics say he's bad at dealing with experts and women in particular and in taking their advice. There is strong evidence of this as many people have fled de Blasio's administration. But his supporters, who even concede there is something to this critique, also say Barbot had run the health department aground and it just wasn't rising to the occasion.

KING: How so?

MOGUL: Well, to give you a couple examples - having been widely reported - early on, Barbot apparently demanded money to hire lots of new people to fight the disease rather than reassigning staff she already had. She got hung up on following every last bureaucratic procedure around coronavirus testing rather than fast-tracking new protocols to really ramp up the number of tests. Barbot's also been criticized for sending mixed messages about how serious the spread of the disease was at the beginning, a charge - mind you - that's been leveled at de Blasio, too. Here's what Barbot said at a press conference during the first week of March.


OXIRIS BARBOT: There is currently no indication that it's easy to transmit by casual contact. There's no need to do any special anything in the community. We want New Yorkers to go about their daily lives. Ride the subway. Take the bus. Go see your neighbors.

MOGUL: Now to be fair, Noel, this was when the very first cases were appearing in New York. It was a couple weeks before anyone would be calling for sweeping lockdowns. There was very much a message out there of Keep Calm and Carry On rather than warning New Yorkers about the possibility that what was happening in New York or Italy could arrive here. But she seems to have been on the wrong side of that message.

KING: Ultimately, though, Fred, New York got a lot of credit for flattening the curve after what was a terrifying early spring. Dr. Barbot would have been part of that, yeah?

MOGUL: Right. Clearly, she was part of the team. Clearly, she deserves some portion of the credit. It's hard to, you know, apportion credit for reducing the spread, apportion blame for the extent to which COVID-19 took off, especially in communities of color, especially in congregate settings like nursing homes.

KING: OK. And there's an interesting thing that's happened here. It's not just Dr. Barbot. She is one of dozens of health officials across the country who've been resigned or fired during this pandemic. I know you've been looking into it. What's going on there?

MOGUL: Well, there seem to be two main reasons - two main buckets, if you will. In some cases, it's because they're actually threatened by members of the public. You've seen this in parts of Texas and California. The other reason is, well, frankly they don't get along with their bosses. As one veteran health official I talked to said, a lot of these top experts who run important agencies, they might be good scientists, but they don't always figure out how to work with mayors and governors and presidents and lawmakers while also finessing public opinion at the same time. And when that happens, many of them have found their way to their door, or they've been shown the way.

KING: Fred Mogul, health and government reporter at member station WNYC. Thanks, Fred.

MOGUL: Great talking with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Fred Mogul