May 14, 2020 / 7:35 PM / 20 days ago

New York City health chief's firing urged over spat with police on masks

(Note language in quote in fourth paragraph)

By Maria Caspani and Rajesh Kumar Singh

NEW YORK, May 14 (Reuters) - New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio faced calls on Thursday to fire his health commissioner after a news report that she dismissed a police request for hard-to-find surgical face masks to protect officers from coronavirus, saying she did not care.

Citing anonymous sources, The New York Post late Wednesday reported a heated exchange between Health Commissioner Oxiris Barbot and the city police chief in late March, when she rejected his request for 500,000 masks, saying she could only provide 50,000.

The report highlighted shortages of vital protective equipment in the U.S. epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic at the height of the outbreak.

“I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops,” the Post quoted Barbot as saying during a phone conversation with NYPD Chief Terence Monahan. “I need them for others.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he was gathering information about the incident. He suggested an apology would be appropriate if the report were true but showed no indication that he was considering firing Barbot.

Barbot was not immediately available for comment. But her department’s spokesman Patrick Gallahue said she made the remarks in a moment of frustration, had apologized to Monahan and the two sides had reached an agreement on masks. Monahan has not commented.

Police unions responded with anger to the news report. Paul DiGiacomo, the president of the Detectives’ Endowment Association, called the health commissioner “a cop-hater,” and asked the mayor to immediately dismiss her.

The Sergeants Benevolent Association, another city police union tweeted Barbot “has blood on her hands.”

Lee Zeldin, a Republican House member from New York, also urged Barbot’s immediate sacking.

“I know too many NYPD officers who tested positive for coronavirus & this is the type of attitude that costs lives,” he said in a Twitter post. “She’s entirely disqualified from serving in this post one more day.”

The NYPD has reported 5,490 cases of coronavirus among its 55,000 officers and civilian workers, and 41 deaths.

While de Blasio condemned some of the language used against the health commissioner, he said if the news report was accurate Barbot needed to apologize to the police department.

“To me, it would be inappropriate for everyone in the leadership role to suggest any lack of interest in protecting the men and women of the NYPD,” de Blasio said at a daily news briefing. (Reporting by Rajesh Kumar Singh in Chicago and Maria Caspani in New York; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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