Cuomo leaves Hochul with staff crisis at Health Department amid COVID

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Disgraced outgoing Gov. Andrew Cuomo is saddling successor Kathy Hochul with a major staffing crisis at the state Health Department when she takes the reins Tuesday, personnel records obtained by The Post reveal.

The records that show 58 DOH employees who made more than $100,000 — including those in top policy positions and scientists tasked with fighting the unrelenting COVID-19 crisis — have fled the agency from Jan. 1 through Aug. 11 this year.

Two more top health officials have submitted resignations since then, bringing the total to 60. One of them is Richard Becker, the governor’s deputy secretary for health and human services who was hired last August.

“Hochul has been handed a depleted and demoralized health department. It’s going to be Hochul’s problem to rebuild DOH,” one former veteran Health Department official told The Post.

“They lost a lot of knowledge and experience and they haven’t replenished it.”

The source said Zucker was trying to recruit talent to fill vacancies before Cuomo announced his resignation after a devastating investigative report issued by state Attorney General Letitia James on August 3 found the governor sexually harassed 11 women, including current and former staffers.

Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul will take over as governor of New York on Tuesday.
REUTERS/David ‘Dee' Delgado

Cuomo, who faced likely impeachment, announced his resignation after 11 years in office.

The staff exodus and brain drain could complicate Hochul’s decision on whether to dump tarnished Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. He is expected to remain at the helm of the DOH temporarily during Hochul’s 45-day transition and review period.

The list of departures obtained by a Freedom of Information Law request filed with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s office include:

  • Debra Blog, longtime director of the division of epidemiology, the unit responsible for combating communicable diseases and infections like COVID-19 and overseeing immunization programs. Her annual salary was $196,991 when she departed.
  • Victoria Derbyshire, who was deputy director of DOH’s nationally renowned Wadsworth Lab Center for seven years and worked there since 1992. She’s now a health consultant and her LinkedIn page said she spent “the last eight months” as Wadsworth deputy director “in the absence of a director.” She earned $163,688 a year. The Wadsworth director, Jill Taylor, previously resigned.
  • Lauren Tobias, former director of DOH’s Division of Family Health who supported COVID-19 emergency planning efforts. She made $152,000 annually and now works for the lobbying firm Brown & Weinraub.
  • Greg Allen, the former director of program and management who was chiefly responsible for Medicaid services planning and policy. He was paid $188,000.
  • Janet Zachary-Elkind, Allen’s deputy director. She earned $173,000.
  • Peggy Chan, former director of the Office of Health Insurance’s delivery system payment program. She was paid $181,056.
  • Michael Bass, the former $160,690-a-year deputy counsel for litigation.
  • Tracey Fay Raleigh, DOH’s deputy director of the center for planning and licensure.
  • Paula Breen, formerly deputy director of office of professional medical conduct, who made $153,375.
  • Gary Holmes, who earned $168,000 and served as the DOH’s assistant commissioner for communications.
  • Erasmus Schneider, research director and scientists for DOH and its Wadsworth Lab. He was paid $163,860 and retired in June.

Seven other research scientists have also recently left and some of DOH’s managers were transferred to other agencies. Nora Yates, director of DOH’s contract tracing program who previously helped run the center for community health, is now associate commissioner at the state office of children and families.

Hochul’s office did not dispute there’s a staffing problem at DOH.

Dr Howard Zucker
Dr. Howard Zucker will stay on as state Health Commissioner under Kathy Hochul.
Robert Miller

“The Department of Health has thousands of hard working employees across the state, many who continue to work long hours and through difficult circumstances as we battle the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Hochul spokeswoman Haley Viccaro.

“The Lieutenant Governor has outlined a 45-day transition window, and the transition team is actively working to recruit employees both within the Executive Chamber and at all state agencies, including the Department of Health, as part of a new Hochul Administration. We are confident that the government will function at all levels throughout this process,” added Viccaro.

A Health Department spokesperson said the agency has and will continue to “actively recruit” a new generation of employees to steer the agency.

“The Department of Health employees are proud of the role we have played steering New York through an unprecedented pandemic, with many having delayed planned departures or retirement to do so, while others returned from retirement to help manage our COVID-19 response,” said DOH rep Jill Montag.

“We continue to actively recruit the next generation of professionals as we promote the health of New Yorkers and prepare for a new gubernatorial administration in the coming days,” she said.

Many critics have called for Zucker’s ouster for doing Cuomo’s dirty work during the pandemic.

Zucker signed off on the controversial DOH directive during the early days of the pandemic that ordered nursing homes to take in recovering COVID-19 patients from hospitals without prior testing, which critics claimed contributed to the spread of infections and deaths among the elderly in those facilities. Cuomo and Zucker defended the policy, which was later rescinded.

Zucker and DOH also was implicated in Cuomo’s cover up of the true number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes and for attempting to absolve the administration of wrongdoing in an in-house report issued last year.

Dr. Howard A. Zucker
Critics have called for Howard Zucker to be ousted for doing Andrew Cuomo’s dirty work during COVID-19.
Michael M. Santiago/Pool via AP

Critics said Cuomo cut out or minimized DOH experts’ role in other key pandemic decisions, such as the rollout of testing and vaccination campaigns.

More than 54,000 people have died of COVID-19 in New York State, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. About 16,000 fatalities were residents in nursing homes and other adult care facilities.

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