NY health commissioner submits resignation; medical worker vaccine mandate looms

David Robinson
New York State Team

New York state Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker, a central figure in COVID-19 related scandals that plagued former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, has submitted his resignation, according to Gov. Kathy Hochul.

Zucker will remain as the top state health official until a replacement for the commissioner job is chosen, Hochul said Thursday during a media briefing in Manhattan, adding there are several candidates being considered for the job.

Hochul said she agreed with Zucker's decision to resign, calling him a dedicated public servant.

Zucker was connected to several controversial COVID-19 policy decisions, including a measure that pressed nursing homes to accept COVID-positive residents at the height of the pandemic last year. Zucker was also connected to the Cuomo administration withholding the true COVID death toll for nursing homes for months.

More: Investigations into Northeast nursing homes ongoing as true COVID death toll rises by 16K

Gov. Andrew Cuomo delivers his daily press briefing on coronavirus alongside Health Commissioner Howard Zucker on April 30, 2020, at the state Capitol in Albany.

Hochul had previously been serving as Cuomo's lieutenant governor before replacing him as governor last month, when Cuomo resigned under the weight of sexual harassment allegations against him.

Hochul on Thursday also urged health care workers to comply with the state's COVID-19 vaccine mandate requiring medical workers to receive the first dose by Monday, or lose their job.

"It does not have to happen my friends. What is looming for Monday is completely avoidable and there’s no excuses," she said, adding her administration will soon be revealing details of a plan to fill staffing gaps if thousands of workers currently refusing vaccination lose their jobs.

The comments came as Hochul's administration faces several lawsuits challenging aspects of its medical worker vaccine mandate.

A federal judge in Utica last week issued an order temporarily blocking New York from enforcing the vaccine mandate against medical workers seeking a religious exemption, citing a lawsuit claiming its removal by state officials was unconstitutional.

The state filed legal documents Wednesday defending the mandate and the judge, U.S. Northern District Justice David Hurd, noted he would make a decision regarding religious exemptions on or before Oct. 12.

On Wednesday, the Civil Services Employees Association, or CSEA, also filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany County asking a judge to temporary halt enforcement of the state's vaccine mandate for court system workers. The union noted it represents 5,800 union members impacted by the measure, as first reported by the Times Union of Albany.

The CSEA asserted the vaccine mandate cannot be enforced against the union members until a decision is issued in their improper practices charge filed with the state Public Employment Relations Board, court records show.

What Zucker's resignation letter says

In this Sunday, Oct. 18, 2020 file photo, families of COVID-19 victims who passed away in New York nursing homes gather in front of the Cobble Hill Heath Center in the Brooklyn borough of New York, to demand New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo's apologize for his response to clusters in nursing homes during the pandemic.

The Department of Health released Zucker's resignation letter to Hochul, with Zucker saying it is time for him to pass the baton in the "marathon journey that we call public service in New York State."

"With a fierce dedication to the public's health, I have carried it through many a crisis in the past seven years and five months and placed the welfare of our residents at the forefront of all things," he said, ticking off everything from battles over e-cigarettes and the opioid epidemic to Zika and COVID-19. 

While acknowledging the upcoming challenges of administering COVID-19 vaccine booster shots and defending mandates in court, Zucker asserted he was resigning in part because the worst of the pandemic may be behind New York state.

Zucker noted the state's 75% vaccination rate among adults 18 and older allows New York to try to "normalize" living with the coronavirus, while continuing to boost vaccination rates.

"The important unresolved aspect is the need for pediatric vaccinations which I see happening in the near future," Zucker said.

Zucker will be leaving the job after facing criticism from several state lawmakers over his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. During several legislative hearings that spanned hours during the pandemic, state lawmakers accused Zucker and the Cuomo administration of withholding the true number of COVID-19 deaths related to nursing homes to downplay the impact of state policies.

Lawmakers and advocates have said the lack of transparency hindered their ability to adjust COVID-19 responses to better protect vulnerable frail and elderly New Yorkers. More than 13,700 nursing home residents died in connection to COVID-19 outbreaks in New York. 

Zucker has refuted the allegations, which were connected to top Cuomo aide, Melissa DeRosa, saying during a virtual meeting with lawmakers that the administration paused the release of nursing home COVID data because it feared it could be "used against us" by the Department of Justice. 

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud