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Connecticut State

Gov. Lamont nominates Dr. Manisha Juthani as commissioner of state Department of Public Health in Connecticut. Yale physician has urged tighter COVID restrictions.

Hartford Courant
Hartford Courant
 2021-07-26
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Dr. Manisha Juthani speaks with the media after it was announced by Gov. Ned Lamont that Juthani has been selected as state public health commissioner. Mark Mirko/The Hartford Courant

Gov. Ned Lamont first became aware of Dr. Manisha Juthani, an infectious diseases physician at the Yale School of Medicine, late last year, as the state climbed a second peak of COVID-19 cases and she signed a letter criticizing his reluctance to shut down gyms and indoor dining.

Half a year later, Lamont named her the next commissioner for the Connecticut Department of Public Health, calling her the “perfect” choice to lead the state through the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“It seems sort of fitting to have someone who specializes in infectious diseases with a bit of a specialty in nursing homes to be running Public Health,” Lamont said at the state Capitol Monday afternoon.

As her family proudly looked on, Juthani said it was “humbling” to be named the state’s next public health commissioner, adding that the opportunity fulfilled a “lifelong dream.”

“This COVID pandemic has shined the light on the importance of public health, mental health, health equity, health care disparities, access to health care — such important issues that I look forward to working on,” she said.

Juthani’s parents, who came to America in 1970 as physicians from India, sat in the front row of the press conference as their daughter accepted Lamont’s nomination to be the first Indian-American commissioner in state history.

Juthani earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania, her doctor of medicine from Cornell University Medical College, trained as a resident at New York-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Campus and was the chief resident at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. She joined the Yale School of Medicine faculty full-time in 2006.

Juthani’s experience is primarily clinical and research-focused, though she said she was drawn to the role of commissioner because it would allow her to advocate for the public health of Connecticut residents “on a larger scale” than what might be possible through academia. As commissioner of the Department of Public Health, she will oversee an agency with nearly 700 employees and a budget of about $150 million in state funds.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Juthani has often been a voice for tighter restrictions and a slower reopening of the economy. In addition to signing a Nov. 24 letter urging Lamont to prohibit nonessential social gatherings, she argued last December that indoor dining posed a significant risk of COVID-19 spread.

Juthani, who is also an associate professor of medicine and epidemiology, said that she admired Lamont for not only listening to her perspective last November, but also inviting her to join one of his press conferences, giving her an even larger platform to voice her concerns.

“That just tells me that he’s a leader that likes to have different voices at the table,” she said. “At the end of the day, if he makes a choice different than what I’m recommending, I respect that.”

A year and a half into the pandemic, while Connecticut maintains one of the lowest infection rates in the country, Lamont said, COVID-19 caseloads are beginning to rise once more and hospitalizations are “beginning to pop up a little bit.”

“This is the time when we need a team with the experience and Manisha, you bring that to the table,” he said.

Asked about her position on COVID-19 vaccination mandates, Juthani said that within health care settings, most organizations are moving toward requiring vaccinations. Juthani, who has expertise in infection control in nursing homes, added that as a physician, she particularly believes that nursing home staff should be vaccinated.

“The most vulnerable come to us in moments of need and sickness and it is our duty to protect people who are coming to us for care,” she said.

On the issue of school mask mandates, she emphasized that those who are unvaccinated remain “vulnerable” to the COVID-19 virus. She added that decisions may be made before she assuming the position of commissioner on Sept. 20.

Juthani will be paid $210,000 annually.

Lamont’s chief of staff Josh Geballe said the administration conducted a nationwide search for the position, which included receiving recommendations for more than 100 candidates, interviewing dozens of possibilities and narrowing the list down to five finalists.

Juthani will take over the leadership of the Department of Public Health from Dr. Deidre Gifford, who has for more than a year served as acting commissioner for the department, while also leading the Department of Social Services. Lamont fired the previous public health commissioner, Renée Coleman-Mitchell, in May 2020.

“When she was asked over a year ago to take on the additional responsibility to lead the department of public in the middle of a global pandemic, I can tell you that she did not hesitate to accept that challenge,” Geballe said of Gifford.

Gifford will stay on as head of the Department of Social Services and remain involved in the state’s public health governance as a senior advisor to Lamont on issues of health and human services. That role will focus on improving health and health care in Connecticut by coordinating between nine departments, including the Department of Children and Families, the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Lamont praised Gifford as “a consistent source of reason and guidance as we’ve tried our best to implement decisions that are in the best interests of public health during this global pandemic.”

“I’m so delighted to be passing the reins of the Department of Public Health to someone as well-qualified as you are,” Gifford said to Juthani. “Dr. Juthani impressed us in so many ways when we were talking with her about this role.”

Eliza Fawcett can be reached at elfawcett@courant.com .

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