New NYC health commissioner starts during new stage of pandemic


Allison Shelley for EDUim | flickr

Zena Mohamed

New York City’s new Health Commissioner Dr. Ashwin Vasan held his first COVID-19 briefing last week on Mar. 18.

Dr. Vasan is a primary care physician, epidemiologist and expert in public health with over 20 years of experience. He reaffirmed his plans to acknowledge the growing inequities exposed by the relentless pandemic in a press statement before his first briefing.

“Our recovery must be centered on equity, fairness and addressing the mental health needs of our city,” Dr. Vasan said in the statement. “I look forward to getting started as Commissioner of one of the most esteemed health departments in the country, and the world.”

Dr. Vasan will be tasked with, among other duties, ensuring New Yorkers’ physical and mental health are being sustained through public policy.

Now serving as the commissioner of the city’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, he will also focus on marginalized populations who have limited access to health resources.

Dr. Vasan has been a faculty member of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health since 2014 and the university’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.

In his first briefing, Dr. Vasan made a few statements regarding mask mandates that created some controversy.

When speaking about children younger than five years old, who are still not eligible to receive a COVID-19 vaccination, Dr. Vasan proclaimed it is crucial that they continue wearing masks. Dr. Vasan attributed his decision to hospitalization rates that have increased dramatically among those in that age category.

Dr. Vasan addressed how New York City is tracking a new strain of the omicron variant called BA.2, which has also been referred to as ‘deltacron’.

To prevent a surge this spring, the commissioner urged parents to keep their kids safe by masking up.

Dr. Vasan’s recommendations seemed to contradict his standpoint of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, who told parents that he would reverse the mandate for toddlers in public spaces.

“As a father of a two-and-a-half-year-old and two other older kids, I want to keep them as safe as possible,” Dr. Vasan said. “I would love nothing more than to send my son to daycare without a mask. But as a scientist, and as a doctor, and an epidemiologist, I want to keep him safe.”

Some worry the city’s youngest residents will be required to mask up indefinitely, arguing children should be able to experience life without having to worry about covering their faces.

Many parents were displeased with Dr. Vasan’s announcement because they desire a return to normalcy within their lives. As vaccination rates rise and antiviral treatment for the COVID-19 is increasingly available, many assert masks are not necessary anymore.

But even with the pandemic seemingly waning, new subvariants such as BA.2 can always be around the corner.