Former Health Commissioner Claims Discrimination In Firing

AP
August 11, 2020 - 1:20 pm
Department of Energy and Environmental Protection Commissioner Katie Dykes and  Department of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell.

WTIC File Photo

HARTFORD, Conn. (WTIC and AP) - Connecticut's former public health commissioner is alleging that Gov. Ned Lamont fired her for “discriminatory reasons” and administration officials prohibited her from implementing nursing home protocols that would have saved lives amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Renée Coleman Mitchell lodged the claims in a five-page statement released Monday night by her lawyer, Eric Brown.

“Over the last two months I have been able to acknowledge the insidious characteristics of discriminatory bias,” she said. “They are unwarranted cruelty of oppression perpetuated by intentional efforts to humiliate, erase, discredit, and defame. This historical practice of discrediting and erasing the noble contributions of Black leaders like myself is not acceptable and must end now.”

Max Reiss, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, said Tuesday that the administration had no comment on Coleman Mitchell's statement.

Lamont announced on May 12 that he had replaced Coleman Mitchell with Deidre Gifford, the state Social Services commissioner who would also be serving as acting public health commissioner.

Lamont did not provide reasons for replacing Coleman Mitchell. A state official told The Associated Press in May that 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 denied the official's claims about being slow to act on nursing home protocols.

“When COVID-19 entered Connecticut, I was immediately aware of the vulnerabilities faced by our nursing home residents and their caregivers,” she said in the statement. “I sounded the alarm from the beginning to the governor’s office. It soon became apparent, however, that I was delivering an uncomfortable message to the governor’s office they did not want to hear, or address, and I was met with stiff opposition.”

She said the governor's office cut her out of all COVID-19 planning efforts and delayed and prohibited her from implementing nursing home protocols that she said would have saved lives.

“The state’s response was disastrous until they accepted my strong insistence in which those same protocols are producing life-saving outcomes to this day!” she said.

The deaths of nearly 2,850 nursing home residents in the state have been deemed as related to COVID-19, representing 64% of the total coronavirus-related deaths in Connecticut.

State officials have hired a policy research firm, Mathematica, to investigate the response to COVID-19 in Connecticut nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Coleman Mitchell said she has not been contacted by Mathematica and she believes she will be scapegoated for what she called the state's failure to protect nursing homes.

Coleman Mitchell said the bias against her began in February when Lamont made her subordinate to his chief operating officer, Josh Geballe, who is white, on public health matters.

“My leadership responsibilities were taken away in favor of a young white male with no public health practice or experience; during the worst public health crisis in state history he was put in charge of leading the state’s response,” she said.

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

Weeks before her firing, Coleman Mitchell said Lamont and his chief of staff praised her initiation of mobile coronavirus testing vans in underserved communities and for her implementation of extended monitoring and restrictions at nursing homes.

Brown, her lawyer, said Tuesday that Lamont also has reneged on a severance and benefits agreement with Coleman Mitchell and they are considering filing a lawsuit.