New York City's Health Commissioner on the Future of Public Health
On March 15, Ashwin Vasan began his term as the 44th Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (NYC DOHMH). Vasan, assistant professor of population and family health and medicine at Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Columbia Irving Medical Center, is an epidemiologist, medical doctor, and public health leader and advocate. He serves ex officio on the School’s Board of Advisors.
Previously, Vasan led Fountain House, a national mental health nonprofit, and co-chaired Mayor Eric Adams’s health transition team. He was also the founding executive director of a NYC DOHMH unit that connects people involved in the criminal justice system and their families to services.
In his new role, he oversees a $1.6 billion budget and a 6,000-person staff at a time when the city is in a critical moment of recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. While closely tracking the pandemic, Vasan is committed to supporting health equity and addressing other public health priorities, especially mental health and chronic disease.
The following is an excerpt of remarks Vasan made to the Board of Advisors on February 15, edited for length.
Health Priorities for New Yorkers
Protecting New Yorkers from COVID-19 remains a top priority. At the same time, we have a host of long-term challenges. Mental health is a second pandemic. It is something we’re going to be dealing with for a generation. I’ve seen it as a father of three young children; I’ve seen it in working with colleagues; I’ve seen it as a frontline health worker in Washington Heights. We have a lot of healing and rebuilding to do in every sector of society. Certainly, the city has a responsibility to protect those most impacted—and to address the needs of young people, especially school-age children who are facing this burden disproportionately.
There is also a clear correlation between increased mental health struggles and the steep rise in overdose deaths during COVID. The work New York City has done on opioids is at the vanguard. We have an immense opportunity to expand the model for overdose prevention and safe injection sites, which are already saving lives in New York City communities with high rates of overdose deaths.
While we face these crises, the leading killer of New Yorkers is heart disease, followed by intersecting chronic disease epidemics of hypertension and diabetes. It is important that we apply resources realized through the pandemic, including a community workforce and partnerships with community-based organizations, toward confronting these deeply inequitable chronic disease epidemics.
A Watershed Moment for Public Health
Now is our opportunity to fundamentally redefine the value proposition for public health, the model of public health we want to advance for the 21st century, and the areas of public health that need to be strengthened and supported. The Health Department in New York City, with its resources and relative nimbleness, is positioned to be at the forefront of defining that different future for public health, a future in which health equity is centered and racism is recognized as the national health crisis it is.
We have solid relationships with all levels of government that have been strengthened through the pandemic. Going forward, we have to be mindful of the trauma and pain that everyone’s been through, especially those on the front lines in public health. It’s an exciting time to being doing this work and certainly an honor.