William Zhang, Contributing Photographer

Ashwin Vasan, the 44th Commissioner of the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene since March 2022, joined Dean Megan Ranney for a fireside chat at the School of Public Health on Thursday.

Vasan is a practicing primary care physician, epidemiologist and public health expert who works to improve physical and mental health, social welfare and public policy outcomes for marginalized populations in New York City, as well as nationally and globally. As part of the School of Public Health’s “Leaders in Public Health” Dean’s Speaker Series, which showcases accomplished individuals in the field of public health, Vasan and Ranney discussed how government and academic institutions can work together to solve macro-level health issues and how New York City is combating climate change and its health effects.

“[This campaign] is a collective project — it’s not the job of a public health department or a school of public health alone … We need to have intent, focus, and coordinated effort across public, private, nonprofit and philanthropic sectors,” Vasan said.

Vasan described the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s “HealthyNYC” campaign, which seeks to increase the life expectancy of New Yorkers. According to the Annual Summary of Vital Statistics, life expectancy in New York City dropped from 82.6 years in 2019 to 78.0 years in 2020 — a difference of 4.6 years following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The campaign hopes to achieve an average life expectancy of over 83 years by 2030. The department predicts that, if the campaign succeeds, New York Citycould avert 7,300 deaths by 2030.

Vasan also noted the HealthyNYC campaign includes other goals targeting chronic and diet-related diseases, the mental health crisis, COVID-19 deaths, homicide deaths and drug overdose deaths.

The Department also recognized the impact of racial disparities, historical disinvestment in minority communities and environmental and social factors being worsened by climate change, which he described as a public health crisis.

Arinze Colin Agu ’25 is a first-year graduate student at the School of Public Health concentrating in Climate Change and Health. At the event, he asked Vasan to speak on how climate change affects peoples’ mental health, and what the Department is doing to help.

“We know that extreme weather and air quality events exacerbate mental health diagnoses — in terms of ER visits, hospitalizations and self-reported data,” Vasan replied. “The idea that [climate change] is a risk just to our physical health is obviously not true; there are real mental health impacts.” 

Vasan also emphasized that public health officials and state governments should start planning potential health responses to future weather-related emergencies. For him, agencies should consider “what we need to have in place to be activated, rather than what we need to bring in place at the moment there is an emergency.”

This need for materials and plans for potential emergencies comes after Congress cut funding to the CDC and many cities and states are tightening their public health budgets.

Vasan highlighted the New York State Department of Health’s Heat Vulnerability Index, which is a composite score of green space and tree cover, median income, racial demographics — which track closely with inequity and poor health outcomes — and other factors that cause residents to at a greater risk of death during and immediately following extreme heat.

“Although we have the adequate resources to tackle mental health challenges that are consequent upon climate change and disaster-related events, vulnerable communities and those affected may not be aware enough to actually use these resources,” Agu told the News. “We need to improve upon our communication strategies, dispel rumors, and reduce inaccessible language”.

Vasan said that the HealthyNYC campaign is interested in focusing on places that have been historically neglected by policymakers and health officials. These areas often have less medical and public infrastructure, are transportation deserts, and fall higher on the Heat Vulnerability Index, he added.

Rachel Nussbaum ’25, a first-year graduate student at the School of Public Health, told the News that she hopes the campaign will also support people with long covid-19 or post-COVID-19 conditions. This January, the United States experienced the second-highest COVID-19 spike of all time since the omicron waves. Nussbaum also referred to the growing body of evidence that points to the risk of long covid increasing with each subsequent reinfection.

“It’s dangerous to be referring to COVID-19 in the past tense, when 15 percent of Americans reported having had long covid-19,” Nussbaum said. “Death is not the only negative health outcome that we have to reckon with — it is also disability… so we need to be focused on prevention, masking and developing better vaccines.”

Vasan described how the HealthyNYC campaign emphasizes primary prevention or actions aimed at health promotion and disease prevention before illness occurs, rather than relying solely on treating diseases when they happen.

Before the end of the discussion Ranney also asked Vasan about building the public’s trust in public health, and what the most important levers are for the next generation of leaders in public health.

“Don’t fall victim to false choices,” Vasan replied. “It’s not either bottom-up or top-down, it’s not either grassroots or grass-tops … Push past the reductive narratives about what is more important than another, and let us aspire bigger than any one of us can achieve.”

The School of Public Health Dean’s Speaker Series events are held in Winslow Auditorium, in the lower level of 60 College St.