NY Health Chief Howard Zucker, Accused in COVID Nursing Home Saga, Resigns

"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 in making the announcement Thursday

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New York state Department of Health Commissioner Dr. Howard Zucker has submitted his resignation, Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Thursday.

Zucker will stay on board until a replacement is made to assist in the transition amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where he led the defense of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo's oft-critized response. It's not clear who might replace him.

Hochul, a Democrat, said she agreed with Zucker's decision to step down, thanked him for his years of service and said he was moving on to other ventures.

She didn't specify what kind of ventures as she dropped the news at the tail end of her COVID briefing but 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.

A Bronx native, Zucker joined the state Department of Health in September 2013. He was appointed commissioner by Cuomo two years later.

A longtime constant in the Cuomo administration, Zucker found himself swept up in at least one of the scandals that hastened Cuomo's downfall. In January, New York Attorney General Letitia James released a report saying the state may have undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by more than 50%, which would have added thousands of more fatalities to the toll.

James blamed both Cuomo and Zucker for the undercount -- an allegation the two consistently denied. They argued for months amid the controversy that their count was accurate and their methods devised to avoid double-counting nursing home patients who died in hospitals rather than in their facilities.

In a statement Thursday, James said Zucker's resignation "marks the end of a difficult chapter for our state."

"While I thank him for his service, we need more transparency and accountability at the Department of Health as we continue to battle COVID-19," the attorney general said. "I look forward to working with the next health commissioner, who must safeguard the health and wellbeing of all New Yorkers, especially the most vulnerable, and must do so with openness and great care.”

For his part, Zucker used his resignation letter to once again defend his department's record. He said health officials faced “countless unfounded criticisms" but acted with “conscientiousness and competence."

New York's since-rescinded March 2020 directive said nursing homes couldn’t refuse to admit patients solely because they had COVID-19.

Zucker and Cuomo defended the directive as needed to free up beds in hospitals in case of a disastrous surge of patients.

At that time in spring 2020, limited COVID-19 testing made it difficult for nursing homes to know whether admitted patients were contagious.

By May 2020, the state withdrew the directive and required hospitals to test patients for COVID-19 before transferring them to nursing homes.

By July 2020, the health department released a report arguing the main driver of COVID-19 infections in nursing homes were unknowingly infected staff and visitors — not the March directive.

But the report’s findings were limited: it excluded thousands of deaths of nursing home residents who later died in hospitals. And the Cuomo administration declined to say whether the directive may have worsened outbreaks in any nursing homes.

Cuomo staffers and health officials clashed over a decision to exclude the higher death tally from the report.

Zucker’s agency long declined to release such COVID-19 data despite requests by media and lawmakers. Cuomo said the state needed to verify data, but acknowledged the decision fueled misinformation.

Hochul reversed the Cuomo administration's practice of publicizing only a fraction of COVID-19 deaths in daily press releases.

A federal judge temporarily blocked the state's medical worker vaccine mandate Tuesday. The state issued the order Aug. 28, requiring at least a first shot for healthcare workers at hospitals and nursing homes by Sept. 27, the same day New York City education employees are required to do the same by a mayoral mandate. Tracie Strahan reports.

Zucker praised Hochul's “commitment” to transparency at an August health department committee meeting, saying: “Her leadership allowing me and all of DOH to get the data out is refreshing.”

His role in the state's pandemic response may also resurface in an anticipated report from the Assembly Judiciary Committee.

The committee's wide-ranging impeachment investigation of Cuomo includes the administration’s handling of COVID-19 data and efforts to rush COVID-19 testing for Cuomo’s inner circle in spring 2020.

In one instance, a Zucker aide tested Cuomo’s brother Chris at his Hamptons home. The committee's chair says the report will be released soon, but the timing is unclear.

State Senate Republican leader Rob Ortt in a statement called Zucker's resignation "welcome news to all the local public health officials whose input into COVID-19 he ignored, to all the medical professionals who had to endure a Department of Health agenda driven by politics over public health necessities, and to the thousands of families whose loved ones’ deaths were covered up by him, under orders he falsely claimed were based on science."

"To be clear, his resignation should’ve happened in January, when I first called for it. Howard Zucker chose to protect Andrew Cuomo’s political career above protecting the health of New Yorkers," Ortt's statement continued. "We hope that he and Andrew Cuomo have occasion to continue discussing and refining their warped version of science during their retirement from public service."

The Biden Administration is expected to make vaccinations mandatory for nursing home employees across the U.S. as early as next month, but some facilities are already issuing their own mandates. NBC New York's Brian Thompson reports.
Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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