NEW YORK – New York City’s mayor expressed concern Thursday over a heated phone call in March between his health commissioner and a top police commander over what was then a dangerously thin stockpile of face masks.
During the call, which took place as health care workers were desperate to obtain more protective gear to treat thousands of coronavirus patients streaming into hospitals, Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot clashed with NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan, who wanted more masks for officers.
The New York Post, citing an anonymous source, reported late Wednesday that Barbot retorted, “I don’t give two rats’ asses about your cops,” during the call. It didn't report what Monahan said to prompt that response.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said he wants to speak with both Barbot and Monahan to “understand exactly what happened," as police unions and a congressman called for Barbot's firing.
“No public servant should ever, in any way, say anything disrespectful about the men and women of the NYPD. They protect us. We need to protect them," de Blasio said. “To me, it would be inappropriate for anyone, particularly in a leadership role, to suggest any lack of interest in protecting the men and women of the NYPD. That would be, to me, a real inappropriate statement."
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene confirmed “there was a heated exchange between the two where things were said out of frustration, but no harm was wished on anyone.”
The department said Barbot had apologized to Monahan "for her contribution to the exchange.”
“The apology was accepted, and agreement was arrived between the two to ensure that respirators were delivered to members of the force,” press secretary Patrick Gallahue said. “This has always been about saving the lives of our health care workers, police officers and every New Yorker who is fighting through this pandemic.”
The head of the city’s largest police union said Barbot should be fired.
“Dr. Barbot should be forced to look in the eye of every police family who lost a hero to this virus. Look them in the eye and tell them they aren’t worth a rat’s ass,” said Police Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch.
An official who was briefed on the phone call between Barbot and Monahan said it happened after Monahan called to complain that NYPD personnel sent to pick up 500,000 protective face masks from a New Jersey warehouse were told they’d only be getting 50,000.
The official was not authorized to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity.
At the time, public health experts were saying that masks were in such short supply that they needed to be reserved for health care workers treating people with the virus. Doctors and nurses were forced to re-use masks repeatedly — a departure from usual standards of infection control. An alarming number of health care workers were getting ill, causing a staffing crisis just as a tidal wave of patients hit.
The city eventually sent 250,000 masks to the NYPD.
The head of the union representing police detectives, Paul DiGiacomo, called Barbot “a cop-hater.” The union representing police sergeants used a misogynistic insult to describe Barbot on its Twitter feed.
U.S. Rep. Max Rose, a Staten Island Democrat, tweeted: “This kind of attitude explains so much about City Hall’s overall response to this crisis. Dr. Barbot shouldn’t resign, she should be fired.”
Barbot and Monahan both declined to comment through department spokespeople.