May 12, 2020 / 5:45 PM / 15 days ago

In abrupt move, Connecticut replaces health commissioner amid pandemic

May 12 (Reuters) - Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont said on Tuesday that he was replacing his public health commissioner, in an abrupt decision to shake up 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 by a former deputy commissioner.

The move also 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 due in part to its proximity to New York City, although like other states, it has struggled with large numbers of deaths in nursing homes.

Coleman-Mitchell, who has a masters degree in public health from Yale, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

“Her 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 of Coleman-Mitchell in his statement.

The rare move by a U.S. governor to replace a leading health official amid the pandemic follows two public controversies involving Coleman-Mitchell since she was appointed commissioner in the spring of 2019.

The first was in August when Lamont overruled a controversial decision by Coleman-Mitchell 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, who was a senior official at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington before joining Connecticut’s social services department in 2016, 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)

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