Dr. Oxiris Barbot resigns after reported rift with mayor over COVID-19 response

Photo : Ed Reed

New York City’s top health official Dr. Oxiris Barbot submitted a letter of resignation to Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office on Tuesday morning.

The New York Times reported that Barbot emailed her resignation to de Blasio and expressed disappointment in his handling of the crisis.

“I leave my post today with deep disappointment that during the most critical public health crisis in our lifetime, that the Health Department’s incomparable disease control expertise was not used to the degree it could have been,” Barbot wrote. 

In a letter to staff, Barbot wrote “your experience and guidance have been the beacon leading this city through this historic pandemic and that to successfully brace against the inevitable second wave, your talents must be better leveraged alongside that of our sister agencies.  I have every confidence that you, the committed individuals of this agency, will continue to dedicate yourselves to protecting the health of all New Yorkers during this unprecedented public health emergency. “

Shortly after news of her resignation broke, the mayor’s office announced that Dr. Dave A. Chokshi will take over her post as commissioner of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Chokshi, who lives in Jackson Heights, is primary care physician with a “public health heart” who worked in the Lousiana Department of Health before and after Hurricane Katrina, served as White House Fellow during the Obama Administration, served on the FEMA delegation to New York City after Hurricane Sandy and currently practices at Belleview Hospital. 

“Dr. Chokshi has spent his career fighting for those too often left behind,” said Mayor Bill de Blasio in a statement.  “Never has that been more true than during the COVID-19 pandemic, where he has helped lead our City’s public health system under unprecedented challenges. I know he’s ready to lead the charge forward in our fight for a fairer and healthier city for all.”

The press release makes no mention of Dr. Barbot’s sudden departure. 

De Blasio repeatedly dodged questions from reporters during a Tuesday press conference on what caused the rift between City Hall and the health commissioner and did not say if he asked Barbot to step. 

“You know it’s not obviously about one thing,” de Blasio told reporters after saying he had received Barbot’s letter of resignation at about 10:30 a.m. “The commissioner made her decision…but it had been clear, certainly in recent days, that it was time for a change.” 

“We have huge challenges ahead, and we need an atmosphere of unity, we need an atmosphere of common purpose, and people really focusing on all of the parts of this government working together.” De Blasio added that it was important to have a strong leader ready to step in that had experience in the department of health and in the city’s public hospital system. 

In May, de Blasio shifted control over the city’s contract tracing efforts to the Health and Hospitals system despite the Health Department’s history contract tracing for diseases like Ebola, H.I.V. and Tuberculosis causing major concern among health officials. 

“One thing that distinguishes Dave is his experience in the Department of Health, his experience in Health and Hospitals and the ability to think about how to bring all those pieces together,” de Blasio said. 

Since March, Dr. Barbot has regularly joined Mayor de Blasio during his daily novel coronavirus press conferences. But Barbot has been strangely absent from the pressers after news broke of a heated conversation between the commission and NYPD Chief of Department Terrance Monahan. 

Monahan asked Barbot for 500,000 face masks to protect officers from the virus to which the health commissioner replied “I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops…I need them for others,”  The New York Post first reported.

Barbot’s departure comes as the city grapples with partially reopening schools in five weeks and braces itself for a potential second wave as the colder months approach.