Dr. Howard Zucker, the New York state health commissioner during the Covid-19 crisis who became engulfed in the Cuomo administration’s nursing home controversy, is stepping down.
Gov. Kathy Hochul announced Zucker’s departure Thursday during a Covid-19 briefing, adding that he will stay on as health commissioner until the position is filled. Zucker’s resignation marks the departure of one of the last remaining prominent members of former Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration.
“I agree with his decision,” Hochul said Thursday. “He worked hard through the pandemic, and I want to thank him for his service on behalf of the people of the state.”
“I wanted to take the first 45 days to assemble a new team going forward,” said Hochul, who took office in August after Cuomo resigned following a report that found he sexually harassed 11 women, which he denied. “That process is ongoing and he understands and he respects that.”
Zucker’s resignation letter painted a picture of New York supposedly bouncing back after the worst of the pandemic has passed, with 75% of people above the age of 18 already being vaccinated, and shots in arms for children looming on the horizon.
“There comes a time when the baton should be passed in this marathon journey that we call public service in New York State,” Zucker wrote. “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.”
During the Covid-19 crisis, Zucker became a fixture at Cuomo’s daily Covid briefings, offering in-depth explanations about the use of masks and social distancing while answering tough technical questions about the transmission of the virus. Zucker previously steered New York through outbreaks of Ebola, Legionella, Zika and the measles, amid other health scares, according to his resignation letter.
Despite initial praise, the Cuomo administration received mounting criticism for its response to the pandemic. State Attorney General Letitia James issued a report in January that found administration officials undercounted Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents by approximately 50%. In a statement at the time, Zucker denied there was an undercount.
Top members of former Cuomo’s administration allegedly made the call to misrepresent the data to hide the higher Covid-19 death toll among the state’s nursing home residents, The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal reported in March.
Beth Garvey, Cuomo’s special counsel and senior adviser, said at the time that the “out of facility data was omitted after (the Department of Health) could not confirm it had been adequately verified.”
Zucker joined the health department in 2013 and was a former White House fellow under then-Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, according to his biography on the New York State website. He later became deputy assistant secretary of health where he developed the country’s Medical Reserve Corps, a network of volunteers designed to help during public health emergencies.