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Politics and Government

NY Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker submits his resignation

Mike Wren
New York State Department of Health

Dr. Howard Zucker, the head of the state Department of Health who led the agency through the COVID-19 pandemic and came under fire for decisions related to that crisis, has submitted his resignation from office, Gov. Kathy Hochul said Thursday.

There’s been pressure for Zucker’s removal since Hochul took office over his handling of nursing homes and the data related to those facilities when he served under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Hochul didn’t say whether Zucker chose to resign on his own, or was asked to step down by the administration, but said it was the right call. Zucker has served as the commissioner of the state Department of Health for more than seven years.

“I agree with his decision,” Hochul said. “I think I made it very clear my first day in office that I’d be looking to build a new team.”

Hochul said Zucker will stay on with the administration until she’s found a replacement. She didn’t say if there’s a shortlist for the job as of now.

Zucker became a national figure last year alongside former Gov. Andrew Cuomo when the pair led the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because New York had the worst experience with the virus, at the time, there was often a spotlight on the administration.

He was involved in several controversial decisions during the pandemic, including an order from the state that required nursing homes to take in patients who were positive for COVID-19, as long as they could care for them and separate them from the rest of the facility.

Zucker also came under fire when Attorney General Letitia James released a report, in January, that claimed the state had undercounted the number of nursing home residents who died from the virus by as much as 50%.

The undercount was the result of two choices by the administration.

For one, they had decided in the first months of the pandemic to exclude nursing home residents who were transferred to the hospital before they died from the total death count at those facilities. They also left out deaths presumed to be from the virus, but not confirmed.

After the AG’s report, Zucker and the Cuomo administration started to release new data that showed thousands more nursing home residents died from the virus than what was previously reported by the state.

Zucker has denied that he, and the administration, intentionally skewed the numbers to show the state’s response in a more favorable light.

He had often been the target of Republicans, who disagreed with several of the state’s decisions during the pandemic.

Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt, R-Niagra, cheered his decision in a statement Thursday, but said it should’ve happened earlier.

“To be clear, his resignation should’ve happened in January, when I first called for it,” Ortt said. “Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers.”

Zucker has also been involved in other public health decisions during his tenure, including the Cuomo administration’s effort to ban flavored vaping products, the state’s preparation for an influx of the Ebola virus, and more.