May 13, 2020 / 2:00 AM / 12 days ago

In abrupt move, Connecticut replaces health commissioner amid pandemic

(Reuters) - Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said on Tuesday he was replacing his public health commissioner, in an abrupt decision to shakeup leadership of the agency at the heart of the state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lamont said in a statement that Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford would take over as head of the state’s public health department, replacing Renee Coleman-Mitchell, effective immediately.

While the statement did not disclose a reason for the change, Coleman-Mitchell has been the subject of controversy since taking the helm last year, including an allegation of racial discrimination.

The move comes one day after Connecticut disclosed that it had surpassed 3,000 deaths from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. It is one of the hardest-hit states and, like other states, has struggled to protect nursing homes.

Coleman-Mitchell’s “service over the last year has been a great deal of help, particularly in the face of the global COVID-19 pandemic that has brought disruption to many throughout the world,” Lamont said in his statement.

Coleman-Mitchell said she was most proud of her work to establish facilities to take in COVID-19 patients who could be discharged from a hospital but risked infecting others if returned to their nursing home.

Connecticut is among a handful of states that set up such facilities in an attempt to quell mounting COVID-19 deaths at nursing homes nationwide.

“I was informed by the Governor’s staff that the decision to move the Department of Public Health in a different direction was not related to job performance. I take them at their word,” Coleman-Mitchell said in a statement provided by her lawyer.

The rare move by a U.S. governor to replace a leading health official during the pandemic follows two public controversies.

The first was in August, when Lamont overruled her decision not to disclose school-by-school vaccination data amid concerns by parents about the safety of their children.

Coleman-Mitchell, who is black, was in the spotlight again in March when former Deputy Commissioner Susan Roman resigned and alleged that she was the subject of racial discrimination, including being called “the great white hope.”

Irene Bassock, a lawyer for Roman, confirmed the allegation made by her client, as reported in the Hartford Courant.

Gifford, a former senior official at the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, said she was focused on coordination among agencies in the state.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required every state agency to even more closely align with each other and sync our operations to deliver a coordinated response for the people of Connecticut,” Gifford wrote as part of Lamont’s statement.

Reporting by Nathan Layne in Wilton, Connecticut; Editing by Dan Grebler and Bill Berkrot

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