De Blasio Freezes Out NYC Health Chief, Setting Off Inquiry

(Bloomberg) -- New York City Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot has found herself in the middle of a public health and political maelstrom.

Primarily responsible for managing the Covid-19 pandemic that has paralyzed the most populous U.S. city, Barbot was passed over when Mayor Bill de Blasio last week gave control of the city’s immense diagnostic testing and tracing effort to Mitchell Katz, head of the public hospital system. Barbot was absent Friday from a City Council hearing called to scrutinize the move.

De Blasio Freezes Out NYC Health Chief, Setting Off Inquiry

“It is unclear exactly why it was decided that Health & Hospitals would lead such an immense effort,” said City Council Speaker Corey Johnson. “What is clear is the serious dysfunction playing out behind the scenes at a time when New Yorkers desperately need to have confidence in their city government.”

New York’s health department has been at the forefront of urban public health policy. The New York Times reported Friday that the mayor disregarded Barbot’s push to close schools and businesses in early March, while taking Katz’s advice to oppose such a move -- until the virus forced a statewide shutdown a week later. Public health professionals, including Katz, now say with hindsight the delay caused many people to die.

Barbot, whose agency has conducted contact tracing in outbreaks of tuberculosis, AIDS, Ebola and measles, has avoided directly speaking about her relationship with the mayor and his choice for leading lead the test-and-trace effort. “We are committed to applying that world-class expertise to bringing this epidemic to an end,” she told a reporter May 10 at the mayor’s news conference. “And we are committed to ongoing collaboration with all of our sister agencies.”

Patrick Gallahue, a spokesman for Barbot, said she was unavailable to comment.

City Council members initially backed Barbot. This week, her political position became more fraught after the New York Post reported she had refused a police demand for 500,000 surgical masks because she was saving them for hospital workers. She offered the department 50,000 in early March as the city faced a shortage, the Post reported.

De Blasio has said he appointed Katz -- a former public health director in San Francisco and Los Angeles -- to lead the effort after the city’s system of 11 public hospitals more than doubled their intensive-care capacity to handle thousands of critically ill New Yorkers. As a public corporation not hampered by rules applying to government agencies, Katz can oversee the fast hiring of thousands of tracers, who would remain city employees, the mayor said.

The hospital system also has more operational expertise to isolate infected patients and their contacts in hotel rooms if they live in crowded households where they might spread the virus, the mayor has said.

The mayor last spoke with his health commissioner “a couple of days ago” and intends to talk with her this weekend, he said during a press conference Friday. He said he hadn’t been informed about the NYPD incident until this week.

Katz told council members Friday that health department experts would be intensely involved in training tracers and setting policies on quarantine and isolation, and would continue to analyze hospital testing data. The city’s testing effort, located at sites connected to its public hospitals, has a goal of increasing four-fold to about 50,000 a day by mid-summer.

Katz said he last spoke with Barbot three days ago, and that she reaffirmed her support for the effort to contain the virus, no matter who leads it.

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