The New York City Health Commissioner is under siege

Day after day, NYPD officers sit in front of the house and wait. Most nights you’ll notice two of them in front of a cruiser, talking with the windows down. Some afternoons, a cop leans on the front hood and peers up and down the block. Every morning when Ashwin Vasan, the New York City Health Commissioner, comes out of his house, other officers follow him to work.

“I had no idea I would need police protection,” Vasan told me in his first public comments about the deadly threats he and his family have faced in recent weeks. “It’s surreal. I mean I can only use that word.”

Vasan, a family doctor and epidemiologist at Columbia University, began serving as the city’s health commissioner in mid-March. His first few weeks at work were relatively quiet. Then, on the evening of April 4, about two dozen protesters gathered at his Brooklyn apartment building. How they got to his private address remains unclear. At first, the scenery resembled dozens of other pandemic demonstrations: anti-Biden flags, anti-mandate placards. A choppy chant echoed through the brownstone canyon: “We! The human! Won’t keep up!” Then the energy changed. A group of agitators climbed Vasan’s front steps, banged on his front door and shouted racist abuse. Some hurled death threats.

Vasan was not at home; He picked up his older daughter from an afternoon program. But his wife was inside, terrified, along with the couple’s two younger children. Upon hearing what was going on, he immediately dialed 911. Police officers showed up, but the crowd stayed until almost midnight. “My daughter had to sleep somewhere else because I couldn’t take her home,” he told me. His voice grew quieter. That first night, one of the protesters brandished a hammer. At another protest shortly thereafter, someone appeared with a baseball bat.

Vasan was initially reluctant to comment on these events. When he agreed to an interview, Vasan and I met for coffee outside a coffee shop in Brooklyn in the last week of April. As he and I sat side by side on a bench, cops stood in close proximity, several feet apart, keeping a small perimeter. Passers-by looked confused because Vasan isn’t exactly a familiar name or face. Despite this, he says he knew the arena he was entering when he took this job.

“Anyone who has followed this pandemic has seen the extraordinary level of hatred and violence and threats against public health officials across the country,” Vasan said. “I didn’t think I needed that [a police detail], nor the administration, which is a perfectly reasonable position. But this protest was quite shocking to all of us in its vehemence, its language and its style.”

But it wasn’t just a protest: people keep showing up.

The date of the first Incident, April 4th, was no coincidence. That was the day New York City Mayor Eric Adams promised to lift mask requirements for school children under the age of 5. However, Adams – in consultation with Vasan – reversed course, citing rising COVID cases across the city. The mayor announced that what protesters had dubbed an “infant mask mandate” would continue indefinitely.

Daniela Jampel, one of New York’s most vocal protesters of the pandemic policies, entered an independent press briefing at City Hall this morning to confront Adams about the reversal. For the past 16 months, Jampel had railed against COVID measures, which she saw as undue harm to children. She was among those pressuring city officials to reopen schools in 2020, and her focus had shifted to fighting the toddler masking rule.

On the day of her visit to City Hall, Jampel was on maternity leave from her job as an attorney in the city’s legal department. After the press conference, she paid a visit to her colleagues and shortly after arriving at her office, she was fired. Jampel claims she never received an official explanation for her sacking. “I think I got fired because I was someone who was very adamant about challenging that policy,” she told me. “I think I’ve been on someone’s radar for a very long time, and I think they were just waiting to fire me.” (Three days before she faced Adams face-to-face, Jampel tweeted in a since-deleted social -Media post that she was “ashamed” of her office because she “fought to have toddlers wear masks.”)

In an emailed statement, a Legal Department spokesman said: “Ahead of the City Hall press conference on April 4, the decision was made to terminate Ms Jampel due to disturbing allegations she had made publicly about her work for the City Legal Department . It has been the Legal Department’s longstanding policy not to go into the details of HR matters, so we have no additional comment.”

Hours after Adam’s reversal and the controversial press conference, the first protesters appeared outside Vasan’s home. Jampel was not among them and said she disagreed with her tactics: she wanted the protests to stay at City Hall. Despite criticizing the commissioner almost daily on social media, questioning his policies and tagging him in tweets, she believes some of his personal agitators have taken their aggression too far.

“As far as I have a platform, I try to use it to say, ‘This is a man who has a public job, and he’s a public figure, and it’s okay, against his public job and to protest what he does in public space. but he’s also a private person and deserves a private life,'” Jampel said. “So showing up at his house in protest is crossing the line for me. That’s not something I would ever condone. It’s not something I would ever do.”

She told me she’s frustrated that what she believes to be her narrowly focused message — that New York schoolkids deserve more carefully crafted policies than they were given — has been lumped together with broader right-wing, anti-government sentiment. She is fully vaccinated and even volunteered at a vaccination center in early 2021 to get her first vaccination as soon as possible. She also vaccinated her eldest daughter, the only one of her children who is eligible under CDC guidelines.

“I think anyone who tries to call me anti-vaccination or a Tucker-Carlson observer is out to score political points and has no idea who I am,” Jampel said. She told me she had a photo with Queens Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom she was promoting. “Ahead of the end of 2020 I would describe myself as a progressive Democrat and I joke that COVID has radicalized me into a moderate Democrat.”

Although Vasan didn’t speak to me about Jampel or her firing, he seemed to agree with one of her key ideas: that extremists have successfully hijacked the public health conversation and rejected every nuance, even in a big, blue, heavily vaccinated city like New York.

silhouette of dr Ashwin Vasan.
Kholood Eid for the Atlantic

The defamation of officials has real consequences. Government officials are resigning in droves, and nationwide, harassment of people who hardly qualify as public figures is now the norm. Vasan told me about a meeting he attended in Albany last month with other public health leaders from across the state. “Almost everyone faces the same threats,” he said. “One of them had FBI protection and death threats and delivered packages to his home.”

Even though the police car stands guard in front of Vasan’s house, demonstrators still occasionally appear. They put stickers on his front door. Sometimes they don’t even seem to focus their energies on the pandemic. On April 20, a group of protesters sprayed marijuana on Vasan’s stairs for a “420 party.” A person with a boom box blasted Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Some brought sandwiches.

“I think there is clearly a vague anti-establishment and anti-government thread, and I will say it very clearly: this Pandora’s box was opened by the previous federal administration,” Vasan said. “As a doctor, as someone trying to care for people, as someone who has been into mental health a lot lately – there must be some pain at the root. So from my empathic perspective, these are people who need something, who need some kind of healing. Like all of us.”

Between July 2021 and March of this year, the New York City Department of Health and Human Services held nearly 2,000 “community conversations” about COVID vaccines, according to a department spokesman. Nevertheless, there are tensions. Vasan said he had nothing against demonstrations in front of his office – which have already taken place – as long as no threats were made. “It’s a First Amendment right, and I believe in the right to protest,” he said. “Doing it at someone’s home and on someone’s property, with kids inside, I think is a different matter.”

I was struck by how both Vasan and Jampel — arguably the two most visible New Yorkers in the never-ending COVID public order battle — seemed to want almost the same thing. Vasan expressed frustration that so many protesters seem to focus on baseless conspiracy theories and statistical outliers for vaccine side effects such as myocarditis. Jampel was frustrated that New York’s infant mask mandate was making the city a political outlier and questioned the logic behind Vasan’s decisions. Each of them told me that they craved nuance in the broader public health conversation, but each also believed that such a thing had become hopeless.

“I will say generally, if I feel there is an opportunity for a good faith discussion about anything, I would be happy to have a discussion,” Vasan said. “If there weren’t hammers and baseball bats in my house, I’d love to have a discussion. Can we just have a civic discourse?”

He got into the black SUV, which was idling several yards away, and drove down the street with a police cruiser at his heels. The New York City Health Commissioner is under siege

Jessica MacLeish

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