By Mark Hallum
City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett is stepping down from her position with the de Blasio administration in favor of an opportunity with Harvard University.
Bassett has worked to address Legionnaires’ disease in multiple buildings throughout Queens and recently helped make NYCHA housing smoke-free in July. Her resignation leaves First Deputy Commissioner Oxiris Barbot in charge as interim leader of the city agency.
The Department of Health has “confronted Ebola and Legionnaires’ disease, strengthened our city’s tobacco laws, and addressed the ongoing opioid epidemic,” Bassett said. “We have made family and child heath a priority, helped enroll tens of thousands of New Yorkers in health care, and reduced HIV infections to record lows. For the first time, we have made improving mental health a real priority, thanks to the incredible vision and effort of First Lady Chirlane McCray. Most importantly, we have infused all of this work with an unwavering focus on racial equity and social justice, creating a legacy that will improve our city’s health in the years to come.”
In August and September 2017, two residents of Parker Towers in Forest Hills were struck by Legionnaires’, including 87-year-old Lenore Velazquez, who died of the illness. The other victim made a full recovery, and the Health Department announced the co-op was free of the disease just weeks later.
After 15 cases of Legionnaires’ disease arose in Downtown Flushing, the Dept of Health released a report illustrating cases had spike 65 percent in 2017.
But August 2015 had the worst recorded outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in the state’s history when 133 Bronx residents were diagnosed and better regulations were put in place to prevent further cases.
“Dr. Bassett brought equity to the forefront of public health in New York City,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. “She led the push to bring health centers to underserved neighborhoods and helped ensure New Yorkers struggling with opioid addiction received the care they needed. Her approach to public health is helping make New York City a better, fairer and more just city.”
As part of an ongoing effort to enforce federal regulations prohibiting smoking in public housing, NYCHA announced a July 30 partnership with the Health Department under Bassett to create an educational initiative to discourage smoking and help New Yorkers break the habit.
Queensbridge Houses in Long Island City is North America’s largest public housing development.
“Mary has been an exceptional partner in bringing the vision of ThriveNYC to life. She has brought a deep understanding of the significant health disparities in communities of color, which has led to significant programs and initiatives that make our city safer and healthier,” said First Lady Chirlane McCray. “Harvard is gaining a truly compassionate, whip smart public health expert and we wish her the very best.”
Bassett’s last day with the city will be Aug. 31.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall