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Howard Zucker finds himself at the center of the coronavirus storm

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with state Health Commissioner

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo with state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker. Credit: Todd Maisel

ALBANY — Dr. Howard Zucker right now is the most important person in New York who most New Yorkers never heard of.

He’s the state health commissioner who is usually at Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s right side these days. He advises Cuomo as the governor directs strategy, medical testing, a corps of hundreds of “health care detectives,” and coordinates with federal and local health departments to try to contain the coronavirus.

Typical days the last week began around 4:30 a.m. with new lab results and a day full of meetings and lab analysis, ending around 1 a.m. The rare break was when Zucker left a meeting this week when his 2-year-old son Benjamin fell and bumped his head (he’s fine).

“I always felt if you can improve the life of others — whether an individual or many — you should,” he said in an interview. "I learned practicing clinical medicine that I have to do everything possible ... it's our role in society."

“But I never expected this kind of situation,” he said of the coronavirus threat. “This is an incredible tour de force of government, pulling together all these departments and disciplines."

Beyond coronavirus, Zucker, 60, was a key adviser to Cuomo in his decision to reject hydraulic fracturing for natural gas as a public health and environmental threat. Zucker is also helping lead an effort against vaping and in favor of legalizing marijuana.

It’s a long and serendipitous path for a guy who once wanted to be an architect, because he couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

Zucker worked in emergency rooms, as a White House fellow during the 2001 terrorist attacks, for the World Health Organization and at Harvard University.

A Bronx-born Yankees fan with a photo signed by Mickey Mantle in 1966, he became one of the nation’s youngest doctors at age 22 at the George Washington University School of Medicine, finishing four years of medical school in three. He was trained in pediatrics at Johns Hopkins Hospital; in anesthesiology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania and pediatric cardiology at Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School.

He has served on boards at Yale and Columbia universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Zucker also holds law degrees from Fordham University School of Law and Columbia Law School, which he completed at night, while running an intensive care unit.

“It is about puzzles,” Zucker said. “What we are doing with coronavirus is a puzzle, it mixes medicine and forensics and I like trying to figure out what is happening.”

For fun, he gets quizzed by his family about the Weekly Health Quiz in the Sunday New York Times and admits he figures out the answer about 95% of the time.

At a 2019 TED talk televised at Cornell University, Zucker seamlessly carried students from Einstein’s theory of relativity, to quantum physics, to the Baby Shark dance. He made a point that social media “threatens to tear down public health because of misinformation” by oversimplifying important thoughts into flashes of fact wrapped in opinion.

Zucker, who lives with his wife, Elissa; Benjamin, and 11-month-old Sadie in the Bronx, has widespread support.

At a recent news conference, Cuomo called Zucker his favorite doctor, which is saying something, the governor quipped, because his sister is a physician.

Longtime Senate Health Committee Chairman Kemp Hannon, a Garden City Republican, said Zucker wears many hats, and wears them well.

“Dr. Zucker is uniquely qualified to be the focal point in this coronavirus pandemic, marshaling the state's resources for testing, tracking and reporting,” Hannon said. “This situation is a pivotal one where New York and the federal government are cooperating, to date, in a constructive manner."

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