Zucker resigns as New York health commissioner after months of criticism over COVID policies

Dr. Howard Zucker, the embattled commissioner for the New York State Department of Health, tendered his resignation Thursday to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Updated: September 23, 2021 - 8:55pm

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Dr. Howard Zucker, the embattled commissioner for the New York State Department of Health, tendered his resignation Thursday to Gov. Kathy Hochul, with the governor telling reporters he would stay until the position has been filled.

In a letter to the governor dated Thursday, Zucker said he worked with “fierce dedication to the public’s health” through several crises during his nearly seven-and-a-half-year tenure in the position. The last 18 months of which have been no exception to that due to the COVID-19 crisis.

“With almost 75 percent of the state’s population age 18 and older fully vaccinated, we are at the point of trying to ‘normalize’ living with this, now seemingly endemic, infectious disease, as we have done with other illnesses for which immunizations benefit the individual and the community,” he wrote in his letter. “The one important unresolved aspect is the need for pediatric vaccinations, which I see happening in the near future.”

New York was hit especially hard by the first wave of the pandemic in March and April of last year, and while the state took several aggressive measures that turned it from being a hot spot to a national leader, it occurred with controversy.

The biggest issue that hung over Zucker was a March 25, 2020, order that required nursing homes to admit COVID-19 positive individuals as residents. The move was deemed necessary because of the overwhelming need for hospital beds at the time.

Shortly after that policy was implemented, death rates due to the virus spiked. Zucker, then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo and others in the administration would claim staff members and visitors were the ones responsible for introducing the coronavirus into the long-term care facilities.

For months, the state tracked COVID-19 deaths at both nursing homes and hospitals. It wasn’t until a review by Attorney General Letitia James in January determined that the state downplayed the impact the virus had on nursing homes by about 50%. It did so by tying the death to where it occurred, at a hospital, instead of where it was contracted.

Others, including members of Congress and federal authorities, also have reviewed the state’s policies on nursing homes and reporting practices under the Cuomo Administration. It was also part of the impeachment inquiry undertaken by the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

After the attorney general’s report in January, Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, called for Zucker’s resignation.

“Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers,” Ortt said in a statement. “We hope that he and Andrew Cuomo have occasion to continue discussing and refining their warped version of science during their retirement from public service.”

James, in a statement issued Thursday afternoon, said his departure “marks the end of a difficult chapter” for New York.

“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,” she said.

To that point, Zucker was often criticized by legislators on both sides of the aisle for failing to provide them with the information they requested, in particular about the nursing home policy.

State Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera, D-Bronx, said in a statement Zucker let the Department of Health become a “political tool,” and that affected his ability to serve New Yorkers.

“His resignation is warranted and another step toward ensuring we hold those who neglected their duties under the Cuomo Administration accountable,” Rivera said. “As we continue to face a devastating pandemic, we need the Department of Health to be fully transparent and functional.”

Hochul took over late last month after Cuomo resigned due to the findings from an independent investigation into sexual harassment allegations and what seemed to be a near-certain impeachment. One of her first actions was to change the reporting metrics for COVID-19 deaths to those counted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

That change bumped the death toll at the time by more than 27% to 55,395.

As Hochul was preparing to become governor, she told reporters and the public she would look to make significant changes in personnel. While she thanked Zucker for his service and appreciated his willingness to stay on for the time being, she also said she agreed with his decision to step down.

“I think I made it very clear on my first day in office that I’d be looking to build a new team, and I am building that team,” she said. “I’m just taking some time to build that team, but, there’ll be other changes forthcoming.”