Following either a self-imposed exile or one forced on her, Health Department Commissioner Oxiris Barbot starting May 19 was again present for Mayor de Blasio’s daily coronavirus briefings.
Until recently, Dr. Barbot had been a regular attendee, either in person or by phone, at the briefings, expanding on all manner of coronavirus-related health and medical topics just about every day since the virus touched down in New York City.
But following a report May 13 that she had angrily tossed aside the NYPD’s need for protective equipment just as the pandemic was beginning to overrun the city, telling Chief of Department Terence Monahan March 18 “I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops,” she faded into the background, with many thinking she would be replaced.
Her return to the briefings followed the issuance of a public mea culpa May 18 that had been previewed by the Mayor.
“The members of the NYPD fight valiantly every day to keep New Yorkers safe. In mid-March, I was asked to provide the NYPD with a half million N-95 masks, while masks and other PPE were in terribly short supply,” Dr. Barbot said in a publicly released statement. “This regrettably led to an argument in which words were exchanged between a police official and myself. I apologized to that police official then and today, I apologize to the NYPD for leaving any impression whatsoever that I don’t have utmost respect for our police department, which plays a critical role on the front lines each and every day to keep our city safe.”
Although she is said to have quickly issued a private apology to Chief Monahan following her remarks, they didn't become public until eight weeks later in what several people, including some city officials, suggested was suspect timing.
And Mr. de Blasio’s claim that he only learned of Dr. Barbot’s remarks to Chief Monahan when they were published in the New York Post May 13 boosted that skepticism, particularly given that news of the exchange between the two was relayed to City Hall soon after it occurred.
Clashed Over Tracing Shift
There have been rumblings of friction between Mr. de Blasio and the Health Commissioner, with that discord heightening following the Mayor’s decision to have the city’s public-hospital system, NYC Health + Hospitals, take the lead on testing and tracing of city residents, effectively sidelining Dr. Barbot’s 6,000-member Health Department from that initiative despite its superior expertise in those areas.
There was a widespread sense that making the exchange public would lead to Dr. Barbot’s resignation or firing, and at the least put her at the Mayor's mercy.
It certainly led to an outcry from police unions, three of which called for her immediate dismissal.
“Dr. Barbot should be forced to look in the eye of every police family who lost a hero to this virus. Look them in the eye and tell them they aren’t worth a rat’s ass,” the Police Benevolent Association’s president, Patrick J. Lynch, said in a statement shortly after the Post’s report. He called her remarks “despicable and unforgivable.”
The head of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, Paul DiGiacomo, said Dr. Barbot should be fired “not only her despicable remarks, but for endangering our men and women in blue who are tirelessly protecting New Yorkers during this pandemic.”
He said that her reluctance to distribute the masks further contributed to the virus’s spread.
SBA Goes Overboard
The head of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, Ed Mullins, said Dr. Barbot’s comments “make it clear she has no personal or professional regard for the police. The primary concerns of a medical professional in such an important position should be the safety of all people, and her attitude places police officers in great jeopardy and makes her unfit for the job.”
The SBA was subsequently less tactful, tweeting: “Truth is this bitch has blood on her hands but why should anyone be surprised the NYPD has suffered under DeBlasio since he became Mayor.”
Only later did news reports contextualize the exchange between Chief Monahan and Dr. Barbot, noting that they were made after city police arrived at a Federal Emergency Management Agency facility in New Jersey in a bid to secure N-95 masks at at time those were in exceedingly short supply, particularly in hospital settings.
Among the three police-union leaders, only Mr. DiGiacomo responded to requests for additional comment, saying May 19 that the apology came under duress and that her original remark "shows her disrespect and disregard for the police."
'Spirit of Collaboration'
In response to a question during the Mayor’s May 19 briefing, Dr. Barbot expanded on her public apology—and extolled the virtues of cooperation among city agencies and departments.
“I want to just make sure that there's no ambiguity, that we value all of our first-responders equally, and that we were all working under extremely tough situations, but that we were working as a team and we were able to provide personal protective equipment for our first responders,” she said. “I just want to clarify that there was always a spirit of collaboration.”
Two days earlier, the Mayor also appeared willing to accommodate differences.
“I have a lot of respect for Commissioner Barbot,” he said May 17. “I have a lot of respect for the Health Department. It was important that we have a conversation to clear the air on some of the recent issues, and I think we had a good and productive conversation and we're going to move forward together. So yeah, look forward to her doing good and important work, and I think we all understand this is a team effort.”
We depend on the support of readers like you to help keep our publication strong and independent. Join us.