After serving North Carolina for nearly five years, the state’s top health official, Dr. Mandy Cohen, secretary of N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, announced she will step down from her position, effective Jan. 1, 2021. Gov. Roy Cooper has appointed Wilmington native Kody Kinsley to succeed Cohen.
“It’s been an honor to serve this state at such an important moment in history,” Cohen said at a press conference Tuesday. “The last two years have been a marathon.”
Once on the shortlist of contenders for Biden’s health and human services cabinet, Cohen did not say whether she would be moving out of state. “I hope that my next steps will be able to keep us here,” she told reporters.
“Your work has saved countless lives,” Cooper praised. “I thank you for your steady hand and leadership during a time of crisis.”
Cohen has appeared by the governor’s side at every press conference regarding Covid-19’s progress and its effects on North Carolinians.
Her pandemic-response efforts have been recognized nationwide with numerous awards, including the Leadership in Public Health Practice from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health in September 2020 and the 2020 Tar Heel of the Year by the Raleigh News & Observer. Cohen also was elected to the National Academy of Medicine in 2021.
Cohen admitted spending time with her husband and daughters is her immediate priority in the new year, as well as taking a trip with her mother and sister. Professionally, she expressed a desire to continue the “same kind of work,” but gave no concrete answers as to what that may include or whether she is assessing other offers currently. She did clarify she would not run for office.
“I’m looking at a range of opportunities,” Cohen said.
Her decision to step down came on the decline of the latest Delta variant surge a month ago, she said, as she watched her team step up and carry forward the baton.
“I’m so proud of our extraordinary work and what we have accomplished together to improve the health and well being of the state,” Cohen said. “And while it’s hard to step away, it’s the right time for me personally and the right time for our team. The Department of Health and Human Services is in a strong position to continue to carry out its mission.”
Kinsley has been working with the team since 2018. Cohen said, though the pandemic has dictated headlines over the last two years, beforehand they were transitioning the Medicaid program, “investing in early childhood and responding to the opioid crisis,” and dealing with multiple hurricane responses with emergency management.
Kinsley began to serve as operations lead in March 2020, as Covid-19 cases started popping up across the state.
“He has been leading so much of our work already,” Cohen said, specifying his guidance in finessing a bumpy vaccine rollout.
“We know so much of this response has been about building trust and trust with many communities,” Cohen said. “But that has to translate into action, and I’m glad the team is seeing and feeling that action on the ground and that partnership. And you can be assured that Kody Kinsley has been by my side as we’ve built those partnerships, and is certainly going to not only continue them but I hope build upon them as well.”
In April 2021, Kinsley — who will be the first openly gay cabinet secretary in North Carolina history — was promoted chief deputy secretary to oversee four divisions: mental health, developmental disabilities, and substance abuse services; state operated healthcare facilities; public health; and health service regulation.
Beforehand, Kinsley lived in D.C. for almost a decade and worked in the U.S. Treasury Department under the last two presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. He also worked for the White House and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Unlike Cohen, the Wilmington native is not a medical physician, nor does Kinsley have a public health education. He graduated from Brevard College with a bachelor’s in chemistry and math and received his masters in public policy from the Goldman School at the University of California at Berkeley. Both the governor and Cohen remained certain his vast knowledge and experience make him the best successor for the job.
“We have plenty of public health experts and doctors at the team [who] will continue to support that,” Cohen said. “But so much of it is about the execution and the operations.”
“Dr. Cohen deserves an amazing amount of credit for recruiting some of the best people around to be a part of this team. And I have every confidence that [Kody Kinsley] will do a great job,” Cooper added.
The governor noted top priorities for the department will include expanding Medicaid, specifically insuring 600,000 more North Carolinians. Cooper also said he will tap into Kinsley’s expertise in behavioral and mental health, looking at ways to deal with addiction recovery and treatment, as well as how to properly handle the aftereffects the pandemic has had on North Carolinians.
“But making sure we continue to administer this vaccination program, get people vaccinated and getting on the other side of the pandemic, it’s got to be the primary objective here during the next few months,” Cooper said.
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