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Fired Connecticut health commissioner alleges discrimination

Former Connecticut Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell
Office of Conn. Gov. Ned Lamont
Former Connecticut Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell

A former Connecticut health commissioner who was fired in the first weeks of the coronavirus pandemic has filed a lawsuit against the state, accusing the governor of discriminating against her, a Black woman, by elevating several white people to lead the crisis response.

Renee Coleman-Mitchell, who was ousted on May 12, 2020, says in her a federal court filing that she was never provided severance pay or consideration for another position as promised by Gov. Ned Lamont, a Democrat. She said she has been unable to find another job because of the damage done to her reputation.

A spokesperson for Lamont's office on Wednesday declined to comment on the lawsuit. On Tuesday, the governor told reporters: “Well, it’s a pending legal action. It’ll be sorted out. So, I think I should probably leave it at that.”

Coleman-Mitchell was among dozens of state and local public health leaders around the U.S. who resigned or were fired in the first months of the COVID-19 outbreak as local governments navigated politics surrounding mask-wearing, lockdowns and infection data.

Lamont did not say publicly why he was replacing Coleman-Mitchell with Deidre Gifford, the commissioner of the state Department of Social Services. At the time, a state official said Lamont removed her for several reasons, including being slow to act on a plan to protect nursing homes from the virus and refusing the previous year to publicly release school-by-school vaccination rates. The official was not authorized to disclose the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Coleman-Mitchell said the governor told her that her removal had nothing to do with her job performance and that he had decided to move in a different direction.

“Governor Lamont’s ‘different direction’ was biased and discriminatory and simply on the basis that he did not prefer to have an older African-American female in the public eye as the individual leading the state in the fight against COVID-19,” the lawsuit read.

In the lawsuit, Coleman-Mitchell said she had raised concerns about infections in nursing homes during the first week of March 2020 but her warnings were met with opposition by Lamont and his administration. By firing her, she said, Lamont insinuated she failed in the response to the pandemic while "the thousands of elderly nursing home illnesses and deaths that needlessly occurred as a result of Governor Lamont’s failure to act in a timely manner.”

The lawsuit seeks unspecified damages.

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