state Department of Public Health

Governor Changes Leadership of Public Health Department Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

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The governor has appointed a new acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford will replace Renée D. Coleman-Mitchell.

Gifford is now the acting commissioner, effective immediately, and she is taking over at a time when the state, the nation and beyond are dealing with a global COVID-19 pandemic.  She will be carrying on both roles, Lamont said.

The governor said May 20, the day some businesses will be able to reopen, is a pivot point.

"We knew that we were moving from simply managing the pandemic to figuring out public health long-term as part of our reopening strategy and I just had to make a decision. I thought this is a good time to make a change," Lamont said Tuesday.

He added that he thought close coordination between the Departments of Public Health and Social Services "made a lot of sense."

"I think the job has changed," Lamont said. "I think in terms of public health long-term, I want closer coordination between our different departments, starting with social services and I think Deidre has a degree in public health, is a doctor, obviously nursing homes are managed by DSS, managed by Public Health. I wanted closer coordination."

The governor said he wanted to make an organizational change and thought the state would be in a better position moving forward "to make sure our public health is closely coordinated.

In a statement released Tuesday, Coleman-Mitchell said she was proud of the work she's done during her time with the department.

"It has been an honor to serve the state of Connecticut as Commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

"When I was appointed by Governor Lamont just over a year ago, I said that I would serve his administration with an unwavering commitment to the public health needs of our communities, I would give honest advice; and I would do so without regard to politics. I believe I have fulfilled that commitment," she wrote.

See her full statement below.

The governor spoke about the change in leadership after a tour of a warehouse in New Britain where a shipment of personal protective equipment is being stored.

In response to a question, Lamont said, "I learned how fundamentally important public health is," Lamont said, adding he might not have been the word's expert on what the Department of Health did a year ago.

"I sure as heck know now and when it comes to contact tracing, testing protocols, all the other initiatives that'd be under our health care strategy, I know how important public health is as part of that overall plan," Lamont said.

Coleman-Mitchell was the commissioner of the department. She joined the Department of Public Health in 1986, serving in several roles until 1994, and returned to the agency in the spring of 2019 to serve as commissioner.

“I appreciate Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell’s willingness to join my administration and lead one of our most vital state agencies, which is responsible for overseeing so many critical public health needs,” Gov. Ned Lamont said in a statement. “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. I thank her for her advocacy on behalf of the health and safety of our residents, and for being a dedicated partner in service to the State of Connecticut.”

At the governor's daily press briefing, Paul Mounds, the governor's chief of staff, commented on the decision.

"We wish Renee Coleman-Mitchell all the best in her future," he said.

"I will say that every commissioner works at the pleasure of the governor, and this governor and his administration decided to go in a different direction," he added.

Prior to joining the Department of Social Services, from 2016 to 2019 Commissioner Gifford served as deputy director for the Center for Medicaid and CHIP Services at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services in Washington, DC, where she oversaw the full scope of Medicaid functions at the federal agency. From 2012 to 2015, she served as Medicaid Director in the Rhode Island Executive Office of Health and Human Services, and from 2005 to 2011, according to Lamont.

“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. I am determined to continue these efforts for the duration of our emergency response and beyond,” Gifford said in a statement.

Statement of Renee Coleman-Mitchell

“It has been an honor to serve the state of Connecticut as Commissioner of the Department of Public Health.

“When I was appointed by Governor Lamont just over a year ago, I said that I would serve his administration with an unwavering commitment to the public health needs of our communities, I would give honest advice; and I would do so without regard to politics. I believe I have fulfilled that commitment.

“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.

“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. Our citizens have uniformly praised our efforts to keep communities safe. As we have seen this virus ravage underrepresented and underserved communities, we have been resolute in assuring that those in our most vulnerable communities were protected.

“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.”

“I thank Governor Lamont for the opportunity to serve his administration I look forward to greater opportunities to come.”

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