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Governor replaces health commissioner amid virus pandemic

May 12, 2020 GMT
In this March 2, 2020 photo, Public Health Commissioner Renée D. Coleman Mitchell, speaks to the media as Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, listens during a visit to the Connecticut State Public Health Laboratory, in Rocky Hill, Conn. Lamont announced Tuesday, May 12 that he is appointing Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford to serve as acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, removing Coleman Mitchell, effective immediately. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
In this March 2, 2020 photo, Public Health Commissioner Renée D. Coleman Mitchell, speaks to the media as Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont, listens during a visit to the Connecticut State Public Health Laboratory, in Rocky Hill, Conn. Lamont announced Tuesday, May 12 that he is appointing Department of Social Services Commissioner Deidre Gifford to serve as acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, removing Coleman Mitchell, effective immediately. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

HARTFORD, Conn. (AP) — Gov. Ned Lamont announced Tuesday — a day after Connecticut surpassed 3,000 coronavirus deaths — that he had replaced the public health commissioner, a change a state official said was made because of missteps dating to last year.

The Democratic governor did not say why he was replacing Renée Coleman-Mitchell with Deidre Gifford, commissioner of the state Department of Social Services, who will also serve as acting public health commissioner.

A state official said Lamont removed her for several reasons, including being slow to act on a plan to protect nursing homes from the virus and refusing last year to publicly release school-by-school vaccination rates. The official was not authorized to disclose the information and spoke on condition of anonymity.

Coleman-Mitchell, in a statement released by her attorney, Eric Brown, said she was told by the governor’s office that Lamont’s decision was not related to her job performance.

“I am proud of the work of the Department of Public Health during this time of unprecedented turmoil and threat to the public health,” the statement said. “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.”

Brown said Coleman-Mitchell is trying to work with the governor’s office on a departure compensation package and there has been no determination on whether to legally challenge the firing.

Lamont did not get into specifics about the firing when asked about it by reporters during a visit Tuesday to a warehouse that had received a shipment of personal protective equipment.

“I just had to make a decision. I thought this was a good time to make a change,” Lamont said. “I think the job has changed, let me put it that way, and ... in terms of public health long term, I wanted closer coordination between our different departments, starting with Social Services.”

Lamont announced in a written statement earlier Tuesday that he had replaced Coleman-Mitchell.

“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.

Coleman-Mitchell had worked for the Public Health Department for 18 years, including the past year as commissioner. She previously was a section chief for the agency, managing chronic disease programs.

Lamont had become increasingly frustrated with Coleman-Mitchell, most recently because of the slow implementation of a plan to protect nursing home residents, according to the state official who spoke anonymously.

The plan involved converting some health care facilities into “recovery centers” set aside mostly for nursing home residents who have left the hospital but still might be contagious or lack immunity. Several centers are now open.

Coleman-Mitchell said in her statement that she was “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.”

As of last week, when the latest data on Connecticut nursing homes was released, coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes — more than 1,600 — represented nearly 60% of the deaths statewide.

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Coleman-Mitchell had fallen out of favor, also, for her handling of a personnel issue with former Deputy Commissioner Susan Roman, the state official said.

Roman, who resigned in March, alleged in her resignation letter that she was subjected to racial discrimination at the department, including being called the “white deputy commissioner” and the “great white hope.” Roman is white, and Coleman-Mitchell is black. Roman did not say in the letter who called her those names.

Roman declined to comment Tuesday.

Roman has filed a complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities that remains pending, said CHRO attorney Michelle Dumas Keuler. She said she could not release details of the complaint because it is considered confidential while an investigation is pending.

In August, Lamont overruled Coleman-Mitchell and ordered the release of school-by-school vaccination rates. The move came a day after Coleman-Mitchell said she planned to release only county-by-county immunization data and no school-by-school rates, amid a debate on whether to end religious exemptions to mandatory vaccinations for school children that sparked public protests.

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Associated Press writer Chris Ehrmann in New Britain contributed to this report. Ehrmann is a corps member for Report for America, a nonprofit organization that supports local news coverage, in a partnership with The Associated Press for Connecticut. The AP is solely responsible for all content.