State health commissioner resigns as governor prepares to assemble new team

After serving for more than seven years as New York State’s health commissioner and helping lead the state’s response during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Dr. Howard Zucker submitted his resignation Thursday.

Dr. Zucker, who was unlikely to remain longterm in the position once former Gov. Andrew Cuomo resigned, said that while unresolved issues remain in the pandemic, he believes that in New York, “the most difficult aspects of this may be behind us.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the resignation during a COVID-19 update Thursday morning and the health commissioner’s resignation letter was posted on the state health department website.

Dr. Zucker said it has “been a true privilege to serve the people of this state.”

Ms. Hochul said she agreed with his decision to resign and thanked him for his work through the pandemic. Dr. Zucker will remain in the position as health commissioner until a replacement can be set, the governor said.

“He understands in this time I’ve wanted to take the first 45 days to assemble a new team going forward,” Ms. Hochul said. “That process is ongoing and he understands and he respects that and he also has opportunity to move onto new ventures and I appreciate his service.”

Dr. Zucker was at the center of a controversial policy at the beginning of the pandemic that allowed COVID-19 positive patients to be released from hospitals and back into nursing homes. Dr. Zucker defended that measure when grilled by state lawmakers several months later and helped lead a state health department report to show that the measure did not lead to a spike in cases. Ms. Hochul, on her first day in office, also adjusted the COVID-19 fatality figures in the state to more accurately reflect the number of residents killed, increasing the total by about 12,000. That led to some calls from lawmakers for Dr. Zucker to be fired.

New York Attorney General Letitia James said in a statement Thursday that Dr. Zucker’s resignation “marks the end of a difficult chapter for our state.” Earlier this year, her office released a report that said the state Health Department undercounted COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%.

“While I thank him for his service, we need more transparency and accountability at the Department of Health as we continue to battle COVID-19,” Ms. James said Thursday. “I look forward to working with the next health commissioner, who must safeguard the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable, and must do so with openness and great care.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul provides an update on COVID-19 Thursday. (Credit: Darren McGee/Office of the Governor)

Ms. Hochul also spoke Thursday about the looming deadline for state health care workers to be vaccinated with at least one dose.

She said the health care workers have had plenty of notice to get the shot. She said her team has been working closely with health care unions to make sure there is continued care and no staff shortages.

“I’ll be announcing a whole series of initiatives that we are doing to be prepared for a situation on Monday that I hope doesn’t happen. It does not have to happen. What is looming Monday is completely avoidable and there’s no excuses.”

She didn’t get into specifics of what will happen Monday for a health care worker who has not yet been vaccinated. She did say there has already been a conversation with the Department of State to allow temporary workers from other countries, such as the Philippines, to come serve health care roles if needed.

“This will not help in the next couple of days, but we’re going to continue to find ways to adjust our licensing requirements so we can have out-of-state health care workers,” Ms. Hochul said. “I have to take some other steps to make that happen.”

The governor also announced two new state websites are launching to expand COVID-19 data. The first focuses on COVID-19 variants to provide information on how the state tracks variants, why they are tracked and updated data. The website can be found here.

The second site featured a COVID-19 Breakthrough Data Report to display COVID-19 breakthrough cases, hospitalizations and in-depth data over time.

“Everybody can be part of this whole public health initiative,” the governor said.

The latest vaccine data shows nearly 83% of adults 18 or older have now received at least one dose of the vaccine and 74.4% have completed the vaccine series. The numbers are similar in Suffolk County with 83.9% of 18 or older having gotten one dose and 70.5% completed the vaccine series.

She said breakthrough cases, while “creeping up a little bit” still represent a “minuscule” amount of hospitalizations. Last week 0.04% of hospitalizations were breakthrough infections and this week it’s at 0.05%.

“The vaccines really have been incredibly effective,” she said. “People should be encouraged by these numbers.”

In Suffolk County, the positivity rate on a seven-day average now stands at 4.1% and there are 227 people hospitalized as of Tuesday.