State Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker’s blind loyalty to former Gov. Andrew Cuomo undermined his tenure as much as allegations of sexual misconduct did to Cuomo’s reputation and political career.
Zucker announced he is stepping down after more than a year of controversy surrounding his mysterious silence on New York’s COVID-19 nursing home death toll. Many state leaders responded with a tasteful form of “good riddance.”
Next to Cuomo, Zucker, 62, was the prominent fixture of the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and he was a regular presence at Cuomo’s daily briefings to offer comment and consultation.
Zucker came under fire by state officials, advocates and the surviving families of nursing home residents for his hand in allegedly misrepresenting the state’s total COVID-19 fatalities in congregate facilities to the public and federal agencies.
The state 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%.
Without mentioning the nursing home scandal and his tight-lipped responses to reporters’ questions at press briefings, Zucker wrote in his resignation letter: “There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public service in New York state. 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 adopted a neutral tone when announcing Zucker’s resignation at a Manhatan press conference Thursday.
“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.”
Officials sharply criticized 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.
Under direct questioning from state lawmakers last August, Zucker refused to provide an updated count of the number of coronavirus-positive nursing home patients who died in New York hospitals and circumvented other inquiries about the state’s handling of COVID-19 in congregate facilities.
Zucker’s eagerness to avoid direct answers helped cement the Cuomo administration’s reputation as a government that made big noises about transparency and failed to demonstrate it. His lack of empathy toward the families of nursing home residents who died of COVID was a shameless bureaucratic exhibition.
Hochul clearly planned to clean house and replace Cuomo’s legions with her own staff members, so Zucker’s resignation may look to some as an anticlimax. As he departs, though, Zucker needs to give those still-grieving families closure by coming clean and speaking the truth about what happened last summer.