DOH chief Zucker, a Cuomo ally, resigns

Dr. Howard Zucker. Courtesy of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Office

ALBANY — State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker resigned Thursday after more than a year of controversy surrounding his silence on New York’s COVID-19 nursing home death toll and scandals involving former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.

Zucker, 62, who was a prominent fixture of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and Cuomo’s daily briefings in spring 2020, submitted his resignation letter early Thursday morning.

“There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public service in New York State,” according to Zucker’s letter. “...Though we continue to address new quagmires related to the pandemic, from issues of booster shots to legal challenges regarding vaccine mandates, I believe that in our particular state, the most difficult aspects of this may be behind us.”

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Zucker’s resignation during a coronavirus briefing in Manhattan.

“I agree with his decision,” she said. “He has been a dedicated public servant for over seven-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 has dismissed questions about Zucker’s fate and continuing to work in his position since she first took office Aug. 24. Hochul asked for 45 days to properly vet and evaluate state employees and decide which of Cuomo’s allies and appointees will remain in her administration.

Zucker agreed to remain in his role until the governor and executive aides select a replacement.

“He understands that in this time I’ve wanted to take the first 45 days to assemble a new team going forward, and that process is ongoing,” Hochul said. “And he understands and he respects that and has an opportunity to move on to new ventures.”

Zucker came under fire by state officials, advocates and New Yorkers for his hand in allegedly misrepresenting the state’s total COVID-19 fatalities in nursing homes and congregate facilities to the public and federal agencies.

The Health Department concealed the total of presumed virus deaths until Jan. 28 — the date state Attorney General Letitia James released a report showing the department published an undercount of New York’s total number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes by up to 55%.

“Dr. Zucker’s resignation marks the end of a difficult chapter for our state,” 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.”

Officials have decried Zucker and the Cuomo administration’s controversial March 25, 2020, Health Department memo, which mandated long-term care facilities and nursing homes cannot discriminate against residents by not readmitting people who test positive for the coronavirus.

Zucker refused to provide an updated count of how many coronavirus-positive nursing home patients died in New York hospitals, and vaguely answered lawmakers’ questions about the state’s handling of COVID-19 in congregate facilities during an August 2020 hearing.

Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, called for Zucker’s resignation in January.

“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 Thursday.

“Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers,” Ortt said. “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.”

Assembly Leader Will Barclay, R-Pulaski, called Zucker’s resignation an obvious and overdue decision, citing Assembly Republicans’ recent calls that Hochul force the state health chief from his position.

“While he remains at DOH until a replacement is named, arriving at this point should not have taken so long,” Barclay said Thursday. “Throughout the COVID pandemic, Dr. Zucker was more interested in protecting Andrew Cuomo’s image than protecting public health. As Gov. Hochul begins the process of finding a new health commissioner, I hope she looks for an individual without ties to the previous administration or the numerous controversies that defined it.”

Zucker vowed to help provide a smooth transition for the next health commissioner in his resignation letter.

Zucker highlighted that 75% of New York adults are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, and thanked New Yorkers for letting him serve them and said he looked forward to pursuing new opportunities.

“Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker tendered his resignation today after working around the clock to protect the public health of New Yorkers for seven-and-a-half years, the longest tenure of any New York state health commissioner since Dr. David Axelrod,” Jill Montag, the Health Department’s communications director said in a statement Thursday. “As New York state’s chief physician, he has led the department in addressing many major issues ranging from COVID-19, Ebola, Legionella, Zika and the 2019 measles outbreak to tackling e-cigarettes, the opioid epidemic, water quality/safety, maternal mortality, banning fracking and the development of a medical marijuana program, to name just a few. He has the utmost confidence in the department’s dedicated employees to carry on our mission of protecting public health. The department thanks the commissioner for his years of dedicated service and commitment to public health.”

Reporter Natasha Vaughn-Holdridge contributed to this report.

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