How New York’s COVID War Spun Out of Control

How did it come to this?

Dr. Ashwin Vasan is sitting by a window overlooking Long Island City.
Kholood Eid for The Atlantic

Day after day, NYPD officers sit outside the house, waiting. Most nights you’ll notice two of them in the front of a cruiser, chatting with the windows rolled down. Some afternoons one cop leans against the front hood, peering up and down the block. Each morning when Ashwin Vasan, New York City’s health commissioner, emerges from his home, additional officers trail him to work.

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

Vasan, a primary-care physician and epidemiologist at Columbia University, began serving as the city’s health commissioner in mid-March. His early weeks on the job were relatively calm. Then, on the evening of April 4, roughly two dozen protesters assembled on his Brooklyn block. How they obtained his home address remains unclear. At first, the scene resembled scores of other pandemic demonstrations: anti-Biden flags, anti-mandate posters. A staccato chant echoed through the brownstone canyon: “We! The People! Will Not Comply!” Then the energy changed. A group of agitators climbed Vasan’s front steps, banged on his front door, and screamed racial epithets. Some hurled death threats.

Vasan wasn’t home; he was picking up his older daughter from an after-school program. But his wife was inside, terrified, along with the couple’s two younger children. When he heard what was happening, he instantly dialed 911. Police officers appeared, yet the crowd remained until almost midnight. “My daughter had to sleep somewhere else, because I couldn’t bring her home,” he told me. His voice grew quieter. That first night, one of the protesters wielded a hammer. During another protest soon after, someone showed up with a baseball bat.

Vasan was at first reluctant to comment about these events. When he did agree to an interview, during the final week of April, Vasan and I met for coffee outside a Brooklyn café. As he and I sat side by side on a bench, police officers stood close by, several feet apart from one another, maintaining a small perimeter. Passersby looked confused, because Vasan is not necessarily a household name or face. Nevertheless, he says he knew the arena he was stepping into when he took this job.

“Anyone who’s been following this pandemic has seen the extraordinary level of hate and violence and threats against public-health officials throughout the country,” Vasan said. “I didn’t think I needed [a police detail], nor did the administration, which is a perfectly reasonable position. But that protest was pretty shocking to all of us in its vehemence and its language and its nature.”

But it wasn’t just one protest: People keep showing up.

The date of the first incident, April 4, was not random. That was the day New York City Mayor Eric Adams had promised to lift mask mandates for schoolchildren under the age of 5. However, citing rising COVID cases across the city, Adams—in consultation with Vasan—reversed course. The mayor announced that what protesters had dubbed the “toddler mask mandate” would continue indefinitely.

Daniela Jampel, one of New York’s most vocal pandemic-policy protesters, walked into an unrelated City Hall press conference that morning to confront Adams about the reversal. Over the previous 16 months, Jampel had railed against COVID measures that she saw as causing undue harm to children. She was among those pressuring city officials to reopen schools in 2020, and her focus had shifted toward fighting the toddler masking rule.

On the day of her City Hall visit, Jampel was on maternity leave from her job as an attorney in the city’s Law Department. Following the press conference, she paid a visit to her colleagues, and shortly after arriving at her office, she was fired. Jampel maintains that she never received an official explanation for her dismissal. “I think I was fired because I was someone who was very persistent in questioning these policies,” she told me. “I think I was on someone’s radar for a very long time, and I think they were just waiting to fire me.” (Three days before coming face-to-face with Adams, in a since-deleted social-media post, Jampel tweeted that she was “ashamed” of her office for “fighting to keep masks on toddlers.”)

In an emailed statement, a Law Department spokesperson said: “Prior to the April 4th City Hall press conference the decision was made to terminate Ms. Jampel’s employment based on troubling claims she made in public about her work for the City Law Department. It is the Law Department’s longstanding policy not to get into the details of personnel issues, therefore, we have no additional comment.”

Hours after Adams’s reversal and the contentious press conference, the first protesters appeared outside Vasan’s home. Jampel was not among them, and said she didn’t agree with their tactics: She wanted the protests to stay at City Hall. Although she is a near-daily critic of the commissioner on social media, questioning his policies and tagging him in tweets, she believes some of his in-person agitators have taken their aggression too far.

“To the extent 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 fine to protest his public job and what he’s doing in public spaces, but he’s also a private citizen and he deserves a private life,’” Jampel said. “So to show up at his house in protest, to me, crosses the line. 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 feels to be her narrowly focused message—that New York schoolchildren deserve more carefully crafted policies than what they’ve been given—has been lumped in with a larger right-wing, anti-government sentiment. She’s fully vaccinated, and she even volunteered at a vaccination site in early 2021 in order to get her first shot as soon as possible. She’s 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 an anti-vaxxer or a Tucker Carlson–watching person is out to score political points and has no idea of who I am,” Jampel said. She told me she has a photo with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of Queens, whom she has campaigned for. “Prior to late 2020, I would consider myself a progressive Democrat, and I joke that COVID has radicalized me into a moderate Democrat.”

Though Vasan didn’t speak with 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, rejecting any nuance, even in a big, blue, highly vaccinated city like New York.

Silhouette of Dr. Ashwin Vasan.
Kholood Eid for The Atlantic

The vilification of civil servants has real consequences. Government officials are quitting in droves, and, nationwide, harassment of people who barely qualify as public figures is now the norm. Vasan told me about a meeting he attended in Albany with other public-health leaders from across the state last month. “Almost every single one has faced the same threats,” he said. “One of them had FBI protection and death threats and packages delivered to their home.”

Even with the police cruiser standing guard outside Vasan’s home, protesters still occasionally show up. They plaster stickers on his front door. Sometimes they don’t even seem to focus their energy on the pandemic. On April 20, a group of protesters sprinkled marijuana on Vasan’s stoop for a “420 party.” One person with a boom box blasted Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” Some brought sandwiches.

“I think that there’s clearly a vague anti-establishment, anti-government thread, and I’ll just be very clear: That Pandora’s box was opened by the previous federal administration,” Vasan said. “As a doctor, as someone who tries to take care of people, as someone who has focused a lot of his time more recently on mental health—there’s got to be some kernel of pain at the root of this. So, in my empathetic view, those are people who need something, who need healing of some kind. As we all do.”

Between July 2021 and March of this year, the New York Health Department held nearly 2,000 “community conversations” about COVID vaccines, according to a department spokesperson. Yet tensions persist. Vasan said he doesn’t object to demonstrations outside his office—which have also occurred—as long as no threats are made. “That’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 children inside, I think is a different thing.”

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

“I will say, generally, if I felt like there was an opportunity for a good-faith discussion about anything, I’d be glad to have a discussion,” Vasan said. “If there wasn’t the presence of hammers and baseball bats at my home, I’d be happy to have a discussion. Can we just have a civil, civic discourse?”

He climbed into the black SUV idling several feet away and took off down the street, a police cruiser following close behind.