Health commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett speaks on Feb 6, 2018,...

Health commissioner Dr. Mary T. Bassett speaks on Feb 6, 2018, from Health Department Headquarters in Long Island City. Credit: Danielle Finkelstein

ALBANY — Gov. Kathy Hochul on Wednesday appointed Mary T. Bassett, the former New York City health commissioner, to be the new state health commissioner.

Bassett would succeed Dr. Howard Zucker, who announced his plans to resign when a replacement was named to provide a smooth transition during the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. Zucker was state health commissioner for seven years under Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who resigned in August amid sexual harassment accusations.

"Our recovery from this pandemic requires tested leadership and experience to improve health equity and access across the state, and Dr. Bassett is perfectly equipped to lead the New York State Department of Health during this critical moment," Hochul said. "Dr. Bassett is both a highly regarded public health expert and an exemplary public servant, and I look forward to working with her to keep New Yorkers safe and healthy."

Bassett is director of the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights at Harvard University and professor of public health. She is from New York City and had worked in Africa in a child health program. She is a graduate of Harvard University and received her medical degree from Columbia University. She served her residency at Harlem Hospital Center and also has a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington.

"I think it’s a fantastic choice," said Senate Health Committee Chairman Gustavo Rivera in an interview. "Dr. Bassett is insanely qualified and a no-nonsense type. She is exactly the type of person we need to serve New Yorkers and not the Second Floor," Rivera said, referring to the location of the governor’s office in the Capitol.

Longtime Assembly Health Committee Chairman Richard Gottfried said he’s thrilled by Hochul’s selection of Bassett.

"I always found her accessible and good to work with and, more important, she has very strong progressive public health principles and experience," Gottfried said in an interview with Newsday.

He said Bassett is capable of asserting her views in politically charged Albany. Gottfried said the department "went downhill" under Cuomo in political and budget conflicts that forced several workers to resign.

Bassett said she was pleased and humbled to return to service in her home state.

"The pandemic underscored the importance of public health, while also revealing inequities driven by structural racism," said Bassett in a statement. "As we move to end the pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to create a state that is more equitable for all New Yorkers."

The Medical Society of the State of New York also supported Hochul's choice.

"We are confident that Dr. Bassett is the right person at the right time to see New York State through to the end of the COVID-19 pandemic — and that her wealth of knowledge and experience in the field of public health will guide New Yorkers through future public health challenges," said Dr. Joseph R. Sellers, president of the physicians' group. "During her years as commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Bassett worked to tackle racial, ethnic, and economic health inequities."

Zucker’s statewide and national stature had grown in the spring and summer of 2020 while, at Cuomo’s side, he helped explain the medical reasons for social distancing, masks, testing for COVID-19 and the need for New Yorkers to be vaccinated. But Zucker also was criticized for supporting Cuomo when he and the governor issued guidance in March 2020 to nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients. More public criticism came after Cuomo delayed the release of complete figures on the number of deaths among nursing home residents.

The health commissioner can be paid about $190,000 a year under state law.

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