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Hochul: NY Health Commissioner Howard Zucker Will Resign

NY Governor Andrew Cuomo gives COVID press briefing (NY Health Commission Dr. Howard Zucker, right) October 5, 2020
Courtesy of the Office of NYS Governor Andrew Cuomo
NY Governor Andrew Cuomo gives COVID press briefing (NY Health Commission Dr. Howard Zucker, right) October 5, 2020

New York Governor Kathy Hochul said Thursday embattled Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker has submitted his resignation. Zucker has faced calls to resign after the state Attorney General found he aided in former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s underreporting of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. Hochul, a Democrat, says Zucker will stay on until his replacement is hired.

"I agree with his decision," Hochul said. "He has a dedicated public servant for over 7 and a half years. He worked hard through the pandemic and I want to thank him for his service on behalf of the people of this state."

Hochul says she wanted to assemble a team over the first 45 days of her administration before Zucker’s ouster.

Following Hochul's announcement, the Department of Health released Zucker's resignation letter.

State Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt has called for Zucker's ouster. The Republican welcomed the news Thursday.

"Howard Zucker’s resignation is welcome news to all the local public health officials whose input into COVID-19 he ignored, to all the medical professionals who had to endure a Department of Health agenda driven by politics over public health necessities, and to the thousands of families whose loved ones’ deaths were covered up by him, under orders he falsely claimed were based on science," Ortt said in a statement. "To be clear, his resignation should’ve happened in January, when I first called for it. Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers. 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."

Zucker oversaw health department policy in the spring of 2020, when a controversial directive issued on March 23 required nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and were still infected with the virus. The rule was later rescinded. But critics say it led to unnecessary deaths at the homes.

Zucker insisted that it was infected nursing home visitors and staff who were responsible for the deaths. In January, the state’s Attorney General Tish James, found that the Zucker and top aides to former Governor Andrew Cuomo undercounted the number of nursing home deaths by 50%. Zucker later confirmed the AG’s numbers were correct. He, along with other former aides in the Cuomo administration, are the subject of a federal investigation into whether they engaged in a cover up of the true number of nursing home deaths. Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

“Dr. Zucker’s resignation marks the end of a difficult chapter for our state," AG James said in a statement. "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. 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.”

Governor Hochul says Zucker will stay on for a few weeks until a successor is found, and she thanked him for what she said was his hard work during the pandemic. But she says she’s intended since she took office nearly a month ago that she would “clean house” and replace numerous controversial Cuomo administration officials.

“I think I made very clear on my first day in office that I’ll be looking to build a new team,” Hochul said. “There will be other changes forthcoming.”

Hochul is also dealing with the looming Monday deadline that requires all health care workers in New York to be vaccinated. A provision that prevents health care workers from claiming religious exemptions has been temporarily put on hold while a lawsuit proceeds. Legal arguments are scheduled for next week.

There are concerns that some of the 16% of health care works who are not yet vaccinated may quit or be prevented from working, intensifying already existing staffing shortages.

The governor says that can be avoided if the remaining workers get their shots in the next few days.

“It does not have to happen,” Hochul said. “What is looming for Monday is completely avoidable. And there’s no excuses.”

Hochul says she’s also taking steps to import health care workers from the Philippines and other countries, if necessary, and is working with the federal State Department to speed up Visa processes. She’s also looking into altering state licensing requirements and is negotiating with top health care workers unions to enact pay incentives to encourage existing staff to work more overtime hours. And she says she’ll have more announcements in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, the governor called on the help of the state’s three National Football League Teams, The Buffalo Bills, and New York Jets and Giants, to help get more members of the public vaccinated, as the rates of immunization continue to stagnate. Just over 61% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated.

A contest for those newly vaccinated will include prizes like free game tickets, special Facetime events with star payers, signed team gear and stadium tours.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.