ctnewsjunkie file photo
Renee Coleman-Mitchell (ctnewsjunkie file photo)

HARTFORD, CT —(Updated 3:55 p.m.) In a move that surprised staff at the Department of Public Health, Gov. Ned Lamont fired Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell Tuesday.

In a press release, Lamont thanked Coleman-Mitchell for her service.

At an unrelated press event later Tuesday, Lamont said he thought it was a good time to make a change as the state approaches its first phase of reopening on May 20.

“I think the job has changed,” Lamont said. “I think in terms of public health long-term, I wanted better coordination with our Department of Social Services.”

The two agencies share a role in overseeing nursing homes, which have been hit hard by COVID-19.

Lamont said he wanted to make sure public health was closely coordinated with the rest of state government and DSS. He said he’s been thinking about the “reorganization for months,” regarding the two agencies and some of their functions.

The pandemic put Lamont’s office in daily contact with DPH, but he declined to say exactly what he learned during that time frame that led him to fire Coleman-Mitchell.

Paul Mounds, Lamont’s chief of staff, said May 20th was also a good time for them to reevaluate the leadership at the agency, “understanding the important role DPH was going to be playing, not just now, but into the future as we respond to this COVID crisis.”

In an email from her attorney, Eric Brown, Coleman-Mitchell said she was told her departure was “not related to 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,” Coleman-Mitchell 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.”

She said she’s most proud of the work she did setting up the COVID recovery facilities for nursing home patients. She said the facilities “will help make our retirement and elderly community populations safer and less susceptible to the indiscriminate suffering that the virus causes.”

Coleman-Mitchell had been largely absent from public view for several weeks despite the ongoing pandemic response — a period during which public health commissioners in other states have been prominent at daily briefings.

Lamont appointed Coleman-Mitchell to head the department last year. During her short tenure she made the controversial decision to release anonymized school-by-school vaccination data as the measles virus made a return to the U.S. in multiple outbreaks. At the same time, she had to be encouraged by Lamont to release that data after telling reporters that she wouldn’t.

During the heated period of debate over whether to remove the state’s religious exemptions to vaccines, Coleman-Mitchell yelled at a reporter to stop taking her photo during a public hearing. Sources say she’s been largely unwilling to do her job, which includes educating the public.

“I appreciate Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell’s willingness to join my administration and lead one of our most vital state agencies, which is responsible for overseeing so many critical public health needs,” Lamont said. “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. I thank her for her advocacy on behalf of the health and safety of our residents, and for being a dedicated partner in service to the State of Connecticut.”

Lamont also announced that DSS Commissioner Deidre Gifford would become the acting Public Health commissioner.

“The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has required every state agency to even more closely align with each other and sync our operations to deliver a coordinated response for the people of Connecticut. I am determined to continue these efforts for the duration of our emergency response and beyond,” Gifford said.

Mounds said there are likely to be more changes in leadership at DPH in the coming weeks.