Howard Zucker
Acting Commissioner
New York State Department of Health

City & State: You were appointed acting commissioner last April. What are the major challenges you face in this role?
Howard Zucker: I’m honored that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has given me the opportunity to serve. Being acting commissioner of health has provided me the opportunity to help guide policy around our mission to protect, improve and promote the health, productivity and well-being of all New Yorkers. It also builds upon my previous role as first deputy commissioner of health, in which I worked closely with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene and other entities on strategies to provide the best possible health outcomes in the most efficient manner for New Yorkers. Our efforts have recently resulted in national accreditation from the Public Health Accreditation Board. This honor confirms what we’ve known all along: that DOH is doing an excellent job of protecting and promoting public health. New York is the sixth state health department to be accredited and is the largest state so far.

C&S: Has there been any progress in regard to who will be named the next state DOH commissioner?
HZ: The governor decides on his cabinet appointments. In the interim, serving as acting commissioner has provided a valuable opportunity for me to help advance initiatives that are making a real difference in the health and lives of New Yorkers. Several of our initiatives have become national models for success. For instance, Gov. Cuomo’s end of the AIDS epidemic plan will decrease new HIV infections so the number of people living with HIV in New York State will be reduced for the first time. The end of the epidemic in New York will occur when the total number of new HIV infections has fallen below the number of HIV-related deaths. Our health insurance exchange, New York State of Health, enrolled nearly one million people in its first year. And our State Health Information for New York, SHIN-NY, is helping to connect healthcare providers’ access to electronic health information to improve care and make healthcare more efficient for all who opt in to the system.

C&S: Recently there has been a lot of concern about the rise of Ebola and Enterovirus D68. What do you do at the Health Department to make sure the public is informed of these risks, while containing public fear? [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before the first case of Ebola in New York was reported.]
HZ: DOH works with the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health departments to provide guidance and support for emergency preparedness planning and drills to help facilities and counties prepare for a wide array of health emergencies, including natural and man-made disasters and containing the spread of infectious diseases. This is referred to as “all-hazards” planning.

Regarding Ebola, DOH’s work group meets at least weekly to help hospitals and other healthcare providers prepare to treat an Ebola patient. DOH and local health departments also provide guidance for anyone who may have had an exposure to the virus while traveling in West Africa, and depending on the circumstances may monitor such persons for illness for 21 days after their possible exposure. DOH will help to ensure that an adequate supply of appropriate equipment is available for treatment of any patients.

DOH’s role with Enterovirus D68 (EV-D68) is largely to monitor the spread of the virus throughout New York State through testing done at DOH’s Wadsworth laboratory, the only laboratory in the state that can test for D68. DOH also monitors daily emergency department visits for respiratory illness and asthma in children. In addition, DOH provides information to the public about how to prevent the spread of EV-D68.

As with any infectious disease, DOH provides guidance and information on infection control protocols and procedures to protect the health and safety of healthcare workers, patients, visitors and the general public. Additionally, DOH provides advisories and alerts to local health departments and healthcare providers to heighten awareness of possible cases, request reporting of any suspect cases and reiterate infection control procedures.

C&S: What goals and role will the state Department of Health have while the state rolls out its medical marijuana program?
HZ: DOH is moving forward aggressively to develop and implement a comprehensive, safe and effective medical marijuana program that meets the needs of New Yorkers. To ensure the health and safety of patients, the Compassionate Care Act requires DOH to develop regulations to create the process for certifying patients, registering practitioners and licensing manufacturers. At the request of Gov. Cuomo, DOH is exploring mechanisms that may accelerate access to medical marijuana for children suffering from epilepsy. DOH recently requested a federal waiver to allow New York to import cannabidiol from other states for use by children with refractory epilepsy that is unresponsive to conventional therapies as an interim measure while New York’s program is being implemented.

C&S: What can you say about the ongoing public health impact study on hydrofracking?
HZ: Work on the public health review is continuing. The process will continue until I conclude that the review is fully informed, comprehensive and best serves the health and safety interests of the citizens of New York.

C&S: Is there anything you’d like to be asked about that you haven’t been yet?
HZ: I want to add that everyone should get a flu shot this season and continue to look on DOH’s website for information on the best ways to be healthy.