NEW BRITAIN — With the looming May 20 target date to reopen some non-essential businesses, Gov. Ned Lamont on Tuesday announced he removed the state’s top public health official, whose tenure was marked by controversy over school vaccinations and struggles to stem the coronavirus’ devastating impact on nursing homes.
Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell had served for about a year. Deidre Gifford, the commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, took over in an acting capacity, said Lamont.
The surge in deaths in Connecticut’s nursing homes was exacerbated by the lack of a plan after the March fatalities in Washington state elderly centers showed that COVID-19 could devastate similar populations, administration sources said. Nursing home residents became nearly half of Connecticut’s more than 3,000 fatalities.
A top veteran deputy of the department resigned and momentum toward firing Coleman-Mitchell can be traced to spring 2019, when she declined to release school vaccination data amid a raging debate on parental rights versus public health in the State Capitol.
“I wanted to make an organizational change,” Lamont said Tuesday morning under a barrage of reporters’ questions at a warehouse here where millions of dollars in personal protective equipment has arrived for distribution to front line workers and small Connecticut businesses.
“I can tell that May 20 was always a pivot point for us,” Lamont said. “I thought this was a good time to make a change.”
Lamont backed away from direct answers to questions from reporters about her leadership. “I don’t think this is where I want to go right now. She has a chance to tell you what she thinks about this change. I thought we’d be better positioned as a state going forward and make sure our public health has been closely coordinated. I thought about the reorganization for months, more broadly speaking.”
In a statement, Coleman-Mitchell said she was told the governor’s “decision to move the Department of Public Health in a different direction was not related to job performance. I take them at their word.” There was no mention in the statement of a lawsuit.
“I am proud of the work of the Department of Public Health during this time of unprecedented turmoil and threat to the public health. Our coordinated response to the COVID-19 public health crisis earned praise from public health experts around the country,” Coleman-Mitchell said in a statement. “I am most proud of my role in promoting and implementing creation of COVID recovery facilities, which will help make our retirement and elderly community populations safer and less susceptible to the indiscriminate suffering that the virus causes. Indeed, our plan was praised by David Grabowski, a professor of public health care policy at Harvard Medical School who told NBC News in an interview this week that it is ‘really the safest approach.’ ”
Sources say Coleman-Mitchell’s tenure was stressful, with growing tension between the DPH and Lamont’s office.
Information and data on nursing home illnesses and deaths was a regular complaint about the DPH’s handling of the issue. About 40 percent of the more than 3,000 COVID-19 deaths have occurred in nursing homes.
“Close cooperation between public health and social services made a lot of sense,” Lamont said. “I think the job has changed. Let’s put it that way. I think in terms of public health, long-term, I want closer cooperation between our departments, starting with social services. Obviously nursing homes are managed by DSS, managed by Public Health. I wanted closer coordination there. When it comes to contact tracing, testing protocols, all the other initiatives that are going to be under our health care strrategy, I know how important public health is under that overall plan.”
Lamont said he wanted the state’s pandemic response to be more unified. “I’ve always found that state government operates by silos,” he said, stressing that the state’s Emergency Operations Center has forced agencies to work as a team. “I wanted really close coordination when it came to our health care effort and public health effort, and that’s why I thought DSS and DPH, even more closely aligned, made a lot of sense with the next stage that we’re going through.”
Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, speaking with reporters after Lamont’s review of about 6.7 million new pieces of PPE, echoed his boss’s belief that it was time for a change. “We’ll immediately start a new search for a commissioner of DPH,” Mounds said, adding that there could be more personnel changes at the agency.
“May 20 is a good date to do a full evaluation of everybody,” Mounds said. “Based upon not only things that occurred during the COVID crisis, but issues that occurred before it, it was time for a change at the top, and also a change as it goes with the leadership team.”
In March month, Susan Roman, one of Coleman-Mitchell’s top deputies resigned, exposing management tension and morale problems in the agency, writing that working for Coleman-Mitchell had been “an incredible disappointment.”
On May 3, 2019, the department published its first school-by-school assessments of child immunization rates, showing scores of schools with kindergarten immunization rates below the 95 percent threshold that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is necessary to provide “herd immunity” for a community.
Coleman-Mitchell, who has masters in public health from Yale University and 25 years of experience as a health administrator, annoyed Democratic lawmakers by refusing for months after the data was published to offer a professional opinion on whether the exemptions posed a public health threat.
While state commissioners usually advocate for or against issues before their departments, in August of last year Coleman-Mitchell shied away. “I am not able, nor should I weigh in on anything that’s public legislation that comes about as a result of any of the work we do,” she said. “That’s not in the purview of my role.”
The same month, she said she would not release updated school-by-school vaccinations rates that had been recalculated after errors were found.
Coleman-Mitchell was publicly overruled a day later by the governor, who ordered the release of the school-by-school data. A month later, she joined the governor in a news conference in his office to unequivocally urge legislators to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from required vaccinations for children entering school.
That issue, which was the impetus for two major demonstrations at the Capitol in early 2020 by parents opposed to mandatory vaccinations, was shelved after March 11, when the Capitol was first closed for a deep weekend-long cleaning. That shutdown was ultimately extended after the General Assembly’s constitutional deadline occurred at midnight May 6.
Even as the pandemic in Fairfield and New Haven counties subsides, it is unlikely that vaccination legislation would be included in any special session this spring or summer.