HARTFORD, CT—Gov. Ned Lamont’s administration has suspended its search for a permanent public health commissioner at least through the duration of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, officials said Thursday.
Dr. Deidre Gifford, the state social services commissioner, will continue to head both agencies as she has since May, when Lamont fired the previous public health commissioner, Renee Coleman-Mitchell.
During a televised news briefing, Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said the administration put the search for a permanent replacement on hold several months ago.
“No one was excited about bringing in a brand new public health commissioner in the middle of a pandemic,” Geballe said, praising Gifford’s performance as the agency’s acting head. “We’ve got a great team on the field, we’re really happy with the leadership we have and we want to stick with it until we get through the pandemic.”
Both Lamont and Geballe said subordinates at both agencies have helped Gifford manage the dual assignment.
“Right now we have an extraordinary acting commissioner of public health, who has very strong deputies both at DSS and DPH,” Lamont said.
Lamont did not offer up any information about whether he planned to reorganize the agencies as part of his budget proposal.
However, in a Thursday press release House Minority Leader Rep. Vincent Candelora, R-North Branford, questioned the wisdom of keeping Gifford in both roles.
“While I appreciate Commissioner Gifford’s background in public health and the effort she’s put forth so far, the fact of the matter is that she’s leading two massive state agencies at the same time,” he said.
Candelora pointed to “turmoil” at the Public Health Department. Last week, the Hartford Courant reported allegations by a lawyer representing Av Harris, the agency’s recently-fired spokesman. The attorney told the Courant that Gifford terminated Harris after he questioned the legality imposing a fine on a Bridgeport night club where a homicide also had taken place.
The Republican leader claimed lawmakers are inundated with questions from constituents on the state’s ongoing vaccine rollout.
“Now would be an appropriate time for the governor to look into the camera and articulate how decisions are being made inside the Department of Public Health, and whether he anticipates making structural changes during what’s shaping up to be a months-long vaccination effort. The agency charged with leading our response to COVID requires a leader solely focused on that mission,” Candelora said.
The House confirmed Gifford’s nomination to Department of Social Services Commissioner on Feb. 26, 2020 before the building and the legislative session was shut down due to COVID-19.