The Connecticut Department of Public Health has been without a permanent commissioner since May, and will continue to be led by Acting Commissioner Deidre Gifford until after the pandemic, the Governor’s Office said in a statement on Thursday to Connecticut Examiner.
Gov. Ned Lamont removed former commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell eight months ago and replaced her with Gifford, who was then and still serves as commissioner of the Department of Social Services. At the time, Lamont said she would lead both departments simultaneously while his administration performed a nationwide search for a new permanent commissioner.
Today, House Republican Leader Vinent Candelora called on the Governor to update the public on the search to hire a permanent commissioner.
“It’s been an extraordinary length of time without seeing the commissioner replaced,” said House Republican Leader Vincent Candelora. “These are two of the largest agencies we have in the state, and I don’t think it sets a good precedent to have one individual overseeing both of them. Frankly, I’d imagine that person could get spread too thin.”
In response to a request for comment, Lamont spokesperson Max Reiss told the Connecticut Examiner that Gifford would stay on as acting commissioner to see through the pandemic response.
“The search for a permanent commissioner did go on for more than six months, but it was later decided by the Governor that it was best to delay filling the position until the pandemic is either over, or at a different juncture,” Reiss said.
A member of the Governor’s COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Group, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to speak on behalf of the group, told CT Examiner that bringing a new commissioner into the state’s effort in the midst of the vaccine rollout would have presented a new set of challenges.
“Everything is always better when people have less on their plate and can focus on one specific thing, but from my perspective, Dr. Gifford has been doing a very good job leading DPH,” said the member of the Vaccine Advisory Group. “I do feel like now would be a weird time to bring in a new person, and think it would be challenging for her to step out now because she’s been so intimately involved in the vaccine process. We might be better off waiting to bring in someone new.”
Reiss also attributed much of the state’s success to Gifford’s leadership.
“Commissioner Gifford has done a sensational job of running both agencies for much of the past year,” Reiss said. “It has been a significant workload, but she has risen to the occasion, and the results have been clear. Under the leadership of Commissioner Gifford, the Department of Public Health and the Department of Social Services have played critical roles toward Connecticut continuing to have some of the lowest infection rates in the country, perhaps the strongest testing infrastructure in the country, and we’ve seen early success in the vaccine distribution process.”
Former Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell was removed from the department in May, and later claimed she was fired without cause and the target of discrimination. Lamont gave little rationale for her departure, saying in a press conference at the time that he “thought this was a good time to make a change.”
Coleman-Mitchell’s short tenure at the department was characterized by a number of controversies, including a reluctance to releasing data on school immunizations and charges of discrimination by one of her top appointees.