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Hochul Says New York's Controversial Health Commissioner Is Out

Dr. Howard A. Zucker, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, speaks during a news conference on coronavirus vaccination at Suffolk County Community College on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Brentwood, N.Y.
Michael M. Santiago
Associated Press
Dr. Howard A. Zucker, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, speaks during a news conference on coronavirus vaccination at Suffolk County Community College on Monday, April 12, 2021 in Brentwood, N.Y.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday that the state's embattled state health commissioner is out.

Howard Zucker, who became embroiled in a controversy over the true number of nursing home deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo, submitted his resignation on Thursday.

Meanwhile, Hochul is bracing for a Monday vaccination deadline for the state’s health care workers amid worries over intensifying staffing shortages at hospitals and nursing homes.

Zucker oversaw health department policy in the spring of 2020, when a controversial directive issued on March 23 required nursing homes to take back residents who had been hospitalized with COVID-19 and were still infected with the virus. The rule was later rescinded, but critics say it led to unnecessary deaths at the homes.

Zucker insisted that infected nursing home visitors and staff were responsible for the deaths. In January, state Attorney General Letitia James found that Zucker and top aides to Cuomo undercounted the number of nursing home deaths by 50%. Zucker later confirmed the attorney general’s numbers were correct. He and other former aides in the Cuomo administration are the subject of a federal investigation into whether they engaged in a cover-up of the true number of nursing home deaths.

Cuomo resigned in August over a sexual harassment scandal.

Hochul said Zucker will stay on for a few weeks until a successor is found, and she thanked him for what she said was his hard work during the pandemic. But she said she has intended since she took office nearly a month ago that she would “clean house” and replace numerous controversial Cuomo administration officials.

“I think I made very clear on my first day in office that I’ll be looking to build a new team,” Hochul said. “There will be other changes forthcoming.”

Hochul is also dealing with the looming Monday deadline that requires all health care workers in New York to be vaccinated. A provision that prevents health care workers from claiming religious exemptions has been temporarily put on hold while a lawsuit proceeds. Legal arguments are scheduled for next week.

There are concerns that some of the 16% of health care workers who are not yet vaccinated may quit or be prevented from working, intensifying already existing staffing shortages.

The governor said that can be avoided if the remaining workers get their shots in the next few days.

“It does not have to happen,” Hochul said. “What is looming for Monday is completely avoidable. And there’s no excuses.”

Hochul said she’s taking steps to import health care workers from the Philippines and other countries, if necessary, and is working with the federal State Department to speed up visa processes.

She’s also looking into altering state licensing requirements and is negotiating with top health care workers unions to enact pay incentives to encourage existing staff to work more overtime hours.

She said she’ll have more announcements in the next couple of days.

Meanwhile, Hochul called on the help of the state’s three National Football League teams — the Buffalo Bills, the New York Jets and the New York Giants — to help get more members of the public vaccinated as the immunization rate continues to stagnate. Just over 61% of all New Yorkers are fully vaccinated.

A contest for newly vaccinated people will include prizes like free game tickets, special FaceTime events with star players, signed team gear and stadium tours.

Karen has covered state government and politics for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 New York and Connecticut stations, since 1990. She is also a regular contributor to the statewide public television program about New York State government, New York Now. She appears on the reporter’s roundtable segment, and interviews newsmakers.