Hochul Names New NY Health Commissioner (and Her Name Should Sound Familiar)

"I made it very clear on my first day in office that I'd be looking to build a new team," Gov. Kathy Hochul said last week in announcing Dr. Howard Zucker had submitted his resignation

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What to Know

  • Gov. Kathy Hochul appointed Dr. Mary Bassett the state's new health commissioner on Wednesday; the change takes effect Dec. 1
  • The Democratic governor announced last week that Dr. Howard Zucker, who had been embroiled in the previous administration's nursing home COVID death saga, had submitted his resignation
  • "I made it very clear on my first day in office that I'd be looking to build a new team," Hochul said last week in accepting Zucker's resignation

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has appointed Dr. Mary Bassett the state's new health commissioner, she said Wednesday, citing a versatile skill set and breadth of experience she believes will help guide the state through the final throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. Bassett assumes the role on Dec. 1.

It was less than a week ago Hochul said Dr. Howard Zucker, embroiled in the previous administration's nursing home COVID death saga, had submitted his resignation. He is expected to stay on to assist until the transition is complete.

A recognized champion of health equity, Bassett spent four years as New York City's health commissioner, from 2014 to 2018, where she led the department's response to a brief Ebola scare as well as outbreaks of Legionnaires and other diseases.

Her career has encompassed work for nonprofits, government and academia at local, national and international levels.

In a Wednesday statement, Hochul said that scope qualifies Bassett with the charge of helping lead New York state out of this pandemic and equips her with the ability to handle any new public health threats that may emerge. That's especially true given her focus on equity, which COVID-19 showed to be drastically lacking at every critical juncture of the crisis, Hochul said.

mary bassett
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Dr. Mary Bassett

"When I was sworn in as governor, I pledged to build a talented team with the skills, knowledge, and expertise to stop the spread of COVID-19, return our lives to normalcy, and move our state forward," Hochul said. "Dr. Bassett is both a highly regarded public health expert and an exemplary public servant, and I look forward to working with her to keep New Yorkers safe and healthy."

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, who worked with Bassett when she served the city, also lauded the appointment, tweeting she "is a trailblazer who has fought tirelessly for health equity for New Yorkers. She's a great leader and I'm thrilled to work side by side with her once again as we leave the COVID-19 era behind."

Bassett currently serves as director of Harvard University's François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights, which was founded in 1993 as the first academic center to focus exclusively on health and human rights, according to the university's website. She is also FXB Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Earlier in her career, Bassett served on the medical faculty at the University of Zimbabwe for 17 years, during which time she developed a range of AIDS prevention interventions. She went on to serve as associate director of health equity at the Rockefeller Foundation's Southern Africa Office, overseeing its Africa AIDS portfolio. After returning to the U.S., Bassett served on the faculty of Columbia University, where she earned her medical degree earlier in her education.

Bassett grew up in New York City and earned her bachelor's degree in history and science from Harvard. She also holds a master's in public health from the University of Washington and boasts a number of prestigious awards, according to her bio.

"I am humbled and honored to return to my home state of New York to lead the Department of Health at this pivotal time," Bassett said of Hochul's appointment. "The pandemic underscored the importance of public health, while also revealing inequities driven by structural racism. As we move to end the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to create a state that is more equitable for all New Yorkers."

Bassett's reemergence on the New York health scene follows a mass exodus of senior members of the former Gov. Andrew Cuomo administration, most recently the looming exit of the state's top doctor in Zucker. When she announced he had submitted his resignation, Hochul said, "I made it very clear on my first day in office that I'd be looking to build a new team" as she tries to restore faith in Albany following her predecessor's scandal-plagued resignation earlier this summer.

The Department of Health later released a copy of Zucker's resignation letter. It is dated Sept. 23, the same day Hochul made the announcement. In his letter, Zucker cited a nearly 75% adult vaccination rate in New York as part of the reason for his move, writing, "We are at the point of trying to 'normalize' living with this now seemingly endemic, infectious disease, we we have done with other illnesses."

"There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public service in New York state," the state's now outgoing top doctor began his note. "With a fierce dedication to the public's health, I have carried it through many a crisis in the last seven years and five months and placed the welfare of our residents at the forefront of all things, professional and personal."

"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," Zucker's letter continued. Read his complete resignation letter below.

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