New York's new health commissioner is taking the reins of a sprawling state agency in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a new variant of concern could complicate a path back to normal.
On Thursday, as she was introduced to New Yorkers by Gov. Kathy Hochul, Dr. Mary Bassett pledged to be honest with the governor and the public.
"I've learned the importance of truth-telling," Bassett said during remarks at a news conference in New York City, adding, "I'll tell the governor what we know, what we don't know and what our best judgment is and I'll tell the public the same thing."
Bassett is a former New York City health commissioner and replaces Dr. Howard Zucker, who had served under Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration. Zucker had come under scrutiny for his own handling of the pandemic and how the state was reporting nursing home fatalities.
Testimony to investigators who had probed sexual harassment allegations leveled against Cuomo earlier this year revealed Zucker had been largely cut out of discussions with Cuomo and his team of advisors. The testimony of the state's former top epidemiologist also revealed a Department of Health that had struggled with turnover in key positions and the unreasonable demands of Cuomo and his top aides.
At the same time, she testified state health officials were barred from coordinating with their counterparts in local health departments in the state.
Hochul appeared alongside Bassett on Thursday moments after it was revealed a Minnesota resident who had recently traveled to New York City tested positive for the omicron variant of the virus. A contact tracing program is underway. Both the governor and Bassett said the development was not a cause for alarm and did not indicate plans to put restrictions back in place, such as mask-wearing indoors.
There remain additional challenges, including limited capacity at more than 50 hospitals in the state, which could have to postpone elective surgeries. Hochul blamed the capacity crunch on a lack of staff who have departed because of vaccine mandates for health care workers or burnout from the last 22 months.
But broad changes at this point are not in the works, Hochul said.
"I'm not prepared to shut down schools or the economy, no," she said.
Bassett urged unvaccinated New Yorkers to get their shots and, for those fully vaccinated and eligible, to get a booster shot.
She endorsed Hochul's approach to the pandemic, which has given more flexibility to local governments and public health departments.
Bassett said it was important to have “trusting relationships with the people in their counties.”
Not doing so could make for an even more challenging environment with the uncertainty of the pandemic.
"These partnerships matter to a coherent statewide strategy," she said. "And coherence matters."