Gov. Ned Lamont has removed Renée Coleman-Mitchell as commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, a reflection of concerns that first arose last year during a school vaccination controversy and came to a head during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The governor’s office announced her abrupt exit in a press release Tuesday morning that offered no characterization of her departure, neither calling it a firing nor a resignation. But sources acknowledged the departure was involuntary, making her the first of Lamont’s top appointees to leave involuntarily in his 16 months in office.
Dr. Deidre Gifford, the commissioner of social services, will add DPH to her portfolio until a successor to Coleman-Mitchell is chosen. Gifford is a physician who has a master of public health degree in epidemiology.
The emailed announcement was awkward, leading with the news of Gifford’s appointment, not the departure of the state’s top public-health official in the midst of a public-health crisis.
It offered no reason for the departure. The statement included quotes from Lamont and Gifford; none from Coleman-Mitchell, who could not be immediate reached for comment.
“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.”
The pandemic has put the governor’s office in close daily contact with DPH, exposing it to morale and management problems at the agency. Most recently, Coleman-Mitchell and one of her top appointees, Susan Roman, had a public falling out, and some in the governor’s office thought she mismanaged the issue.
Roman, whose duties included serving as the department’s liaison to the Emergency Operations Center during the pandemic, resigned as deputy commissioner on March 6. Roman wrote in a resignation letter first reported by the Hartford Courant, “Working for Commissioner Coleman-Mitchell has been an incredible disappointment for me.”
Coleman-Mitchell had an awkward first summer in the job over the issue of whether to end non-medical exemptions for child immunizations, sparking a controversy with the release of school-by-school immunization data, then shrinking from the ensuing public debate.
On May 3, 2019, the department published its first school-by-school assessments of child immunization rates, showing scores of schools with kindergarten immunization rates below the 95 percent threshold that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say is necessary to provide “herd immunity” for a community.
The commissioner, who has a master in public health degree from Yale University and 25 years of experience as a public health administrator, annoyed Democratic lawmakers by refusing for months after the data was published to offer a professional opinion on whether the exemptions posed a public health threat.
“I certainly think the unwillingness to offer her professional expertise on these issues is of concern,” Senate President Pro Tem Martin M. Looney, D-New Haven, said last year. “Prior commissioners have embraced their role as experts in offering information and guidance to the General Assembly, which is one of the things we expect of the public health commissioner.”
In August, Coleman-Mitchell expressed an unusual view of her job: “I am not able, nor should I weigh in on anything that’s public legislation that comes about as a result of any of the work we do. That’s not in the purview of my role.”
The same month, she said she would not release the latest school-by-school vaccinations rates.
“Given that we have not had any further measles cases since April and because the immunization rate for the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines in Connecticut remains above 95 percent statewide, we will not be releasing immunization rates by school for the 2018-2019 school year at this time,” she said.
Coleman-Mitchell was publicly overruled a day later by the governor, who ordered the release of the school-by-school data. A month later, she joined the governor in a press conference in his office to unequivocally urge legislators to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from required vaccinations for children entering school.
She endorsed proposed legislation that would not force children to be immunized, but would bar unvaccinated children from enrolling in Connecticut’s public and private schools. Coleman-Mitchell and other state officials cited concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.