Upheaval in the Health Department: Bardot resigns, Chokshi takes over, contact tracing plan called into question

Stephon Johnson | 8/13/2020, midnight

New York Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot sent in her letter of resignation last week in yet another battle between Bardot and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. A battle and war the mayor appears to have won.

Barbot sent in her resignation letter to the mayor, ending a public battle of philosophies on the handling of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the resignation letter, which was first obtained by the New York Times, Barbot said “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 and the mayor’s rapport took a turn for the worse when he stripped contract tracing duties from the health department and gave it directly to city hospitals. NYC Health + Hospitals eventually outsourced the hiring process for contact tracers to the recruitment firm Bachrach Group and left the day-to-day management up to Optum, a subsidiary of UnitedHealth Group.

An official for the Treatment Action Group (TAG), a group devoted to getting better treatment, prevention, a vaccine and cure for HIV, hepatitis C and tuberculosis, said that the mayor doesn’t realize what he’s lost and isn’t fond of officials whose opinions on the pandemic differ from his.

“Dr. Barbot’s resignation regrettably shows once again the contempt of NYC Mayor Bill De Blasio for his experienced and professional public health officials at the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH),” stated TAG Executive Director Mark Harrington.

In the meantime, the mayor named Dr. Dave Chokshi the new health commissioner for his administration. De Blasio said that he doesn’t want to focus on what happened between him and Dr. Barbot, but move forward with the new health commissioner.

“We’ve chosen, as health commissioner, someone just with an exemplary record, Dr. Dave Chokshi. The focus now is going to be on getting ready for opening schools, getting ready for reopening our economy more, making sure we don’t have that second wave,” said the mayor at a recent media briefing. “I’ll only say about different commissioners, what I ask of all of them is communication. What I ask of all of them is to work with me to figure out the best way to address and solve problems. And that’s what we need. And of course, teamwork. We need all agencies working together and, you know, that’s the standard I hold. And that’s what allows us to do this work for the people in New York City.”

Chokshi, who’s held leadership roles at NYC Health + Hospitals the past half-decade, is a primary care physician at Bellevue Hospital and associate professor at the New York University’s (NYU) School of Medicine.

Nevertheless, New York City Council Health Committee Chair Mark Levine denounced alleged political interference by the de Blasio administration leading to Barbot’s demise.
“The departure of Dr. Oxiris Barbot as New York City’s health commissioner is a grave blow to the fight for public health here,” said Levine in a statement. ”Dr. Barbot has stood up fearlessly and consistently on behalf of science, no matter how strong the opposition.  Her loss is a major setback in our fight against this pandemic.”