Dr. Dara Kass is no stranger to making bold moves. Whether she’s advocating for equality, using her own experiences to help people navigate the COVID-19 pandemic or making the switch from frontline emergency medicine to a government appointed position, Kass is up for the challenge.
President Joe Biden’s administration appointed Scarsdale resident Kass Region 2 director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). She is 1 of 10 directors nationwide. Region 2, which covers New York, New Jersey, U.S. territories in the Caribbean, and several federally recognized Tribal Nations, is based in New York City.
According to a press release, “Regional Directors lead HHS’s 10 Regional Offices that directly serve state and local organizations. Regional Directors ensure the Department maintains close contact with state, local, and tribal partners and addresses the needs of communities and individuals served through HHS programs and policies.”
Other appointments were made for the Department of Agriculture, Small Business Administration and Environmental Protection Agency. According to the release, “These regional appointees will be critical to the President’s efforts to rebuild communities most impacted by the pandemic, the economic recovery, and climate change. They bring deep expertise in their issue areas as well as critical relationships with federal, state, tribal, and local leaders. And, consistent with the President’s commitment to building an administration that looks like America, these regional appointees represent the diversity of American and the communities they serve.”
Kass’ job is to talk to all stakeholders to advocate for and educate about new policies, in addition to seeking input from a wide variety of sources to best serve the region and the country.
“Emergency medicine is kind of an amazing background for lots of things,” Kass said. “A lot of the services that are provided through the agencies in Health and Human Services touch a lot of the things that we’ve done in emergency medicine and also in our health care system at large.”
Especially in New York and New Jersey, which have had many programs in place well before they were put into Biden’s yet-to-be passed Build Back Better Act.
“What does it mean for us to have those programs funded by the government? What more can our state and local governments do for us because the federal government has been able to support the programs that we were otherwise supporting with our state dollars? What does it to mean to live in a jurisdiction that has supported public health and science and now they have more support from the federal government?” Kass said. “These are things that I am really focused on right now, making sure we have solid communication, that we are moving forward and hopefully get to the other side of this pandemic as fast as we can, also without forgetting the other parts of the promises that were made, like addressing inequities in our healthcare system, expanding access for everyone, making sure that that opiate crisis or the healthcare crises that are affecting our children and families are addressed even as we come out of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
While Kass has done a lot of advocacy behind the scenes, she believes her public-facing COVID-19 work at the beginning of the pandemic helped prepare her for her new role a year and half later.
“ It was a time where we needed more public speaking truth-tellers, and also correlating the science to people’s real lives,” Kass said. “So how do we know that our kids are safe in school? When do I need to get vaccinated or do I need to boosted or how do I quarantine if I’m exposed? I answered a lot of questions on public forums and I think that really set me up to be able to show how well I could communicate with different constituencies and really take a lot of the complicated science and the policy stuff that was happening at the administration level and really make it applicable to everyday people. That’s what I’m going to bring to the job in a way that I think is going to be valuable.”
Kass and her family moved from Brooklyn to Scarsdale in August. She and her husband have a ninth-grader in the high school, a sixth-grader in the middle school and a fourth-grader at Fox Meadow Elementary School. In the city, the kids were all in different schools, both public and private and they wanted something “more seamless.”
“The New York City school system both public and private can feel like every year you’re making a new decision and we just wanted to be in one system where they went to school, they knew they were going to school, they knew that when they would get into the school, they knew they would stay at the school,” Kass said. “It just felt much more like predictable and better supported and we’ve been happy so far.”
Kass always new she wanted to become an emergency medicine doctor, following in the path of her mother, who was an emergency medicine nurse. She attended SUNY Downstate College of Medicine and had her residency at Kings County Hospital Emergency Medicine from 2003-07.
“I love the idea of seeing different things, doing different things, knowing a little bit about everything and a lot about some things,” she said. “I really just felt completely drawn to this specialty.”
Kass began her post-residency career at Staten Island University Hospital and five years later she went to work at New York University School of Medicine in order to work with medical students and residents and begin helping shape the careers of women in the field. In 2017 she made the move to become Associate Professor of Emergency Medicine at the Columbia University School of Medicine and worked at New York Presbyterian until being appointed to her new governmental position.
What Kass saw in the health care field early on was a lack of gender, race, social and fiscal equality. In fact, there were “structural barriers” in place that needed to be broken down, even in the 21st century. This was shocking to Kass, who grew up in a “pretty egalitarian family” and never thought of gender as a “restraint to my success.”
Once she and her husband started having children her eyes were opened to lingering systemic issues.
“As much as I was having problems, people that had much less privilege than I did were having even more problems,” she said. “So if I was an attending physician, then a resident was having more problems. If I was fortunate enough to have a husband that was employed, then somebody that was either single or had a partner that was unemployed it would be different.”
In dealing with her own frustrations and barriers, Kass decided to “channel that frustration into action.”
“I realized that there was not even maternity or paternity leave in medicine, which is kind of crazy to think about,” she said. “People who take care of other people when they’re sick, there’s nothing to take care of them when they’re sick, and there’s no sick leave, no maternity leave, not even support for pregnant people when they’re working in shift jobs like emergency medicine.”
You could be 38 weeks pregnant and still working a night shift, which could lead to issues with the pregnancy. Or a new mother trying to find time to breastfeed or pump. Or you’d be back at work four weeks after having a child as the birth or non-birth parent because there was no paid leave.
“Immediately we started fighting policies and supporting new mothers, but we also wanted to support policies that supported all new parents because one of the things we knew from the beginning was that there was never a path to sustainable change without including as many people as possible in that,” Kass said. “The champions of change can’t be can’t be the only those who are affected by vulnerability — it needs to be everybody at the table.”
Kass sought and got “meaningful change.”
“So many things that sound logical are not necessarily either available or easy or even applicable for everybody, especially the most marginalized among us,” she said. “A lot of times they think that the access we have to health care is what everyone has and that’s not true.”
Kass is a founding member of Time’s Up Healthcare and founder and CEO of FemInEM. Among the other advocacy work Kass has done relates to organ donor reform and gun violence.
One truly unexpected turn in the spotlight came early on in the COVID-19 pandemic. Kass had “really symptomatic” COVID-19, though not bad enough to prevent her from working and advocating from home. She had previously decided she and her husband would live separately in their house and they sent their children to live with her parents, knowing the potential dangers of bringing the virus home. Part of Kass’ initial concern was for one of her children, for whom she served as a living kidney donor when he was 2 years old as he might be more susceptible to illness.
The kids headed to New Jersey on March 13, 2020, Kass began to feel sick March 16 and she tested positive on March 19.
“We had a fair amount of information amongst ourselves about what we needed to do for symptomatic treatment and what to watch out for,” Kass said. “I had more than one friend who was admitted to the hospital. Then we started seeing people get sicker and sicker, even amongst healthcare workers who were previously very healthy. I was fortunate enough that my course was pretty mild and was able to go back to work two weeks later.”
During that time Kass began sharing her story, letting the public know her own thought process at a time when there were still so many unknowns.
“We started seeing evidence in China and in Italy of familial spread, that health care workers came home and started spreading it to their families, so we all kind of talked amongst ourselves about how to keep our families safe, which actually allowed us to be the canaries in the coal mine for families across America,” Kass said. “So I started being very public about what decisions I was making in my own family knowing that we were like a step ahead of everyone else.”
It took several months for COVID-19 to come to the United States, so the medical community was glued to any and all information coming from overseas. Though it seemed to hit like a tidal wave, it was not a surprise. Or it shouldn’t have been
“The thing about emergency medicine and emergency medicine doctors, we are prepared for all hands on deck crisis control,” Kass said. “We all shifted ourselves — all of it, everything we had — in March to take care of people in this pandemic. We noticed that patients started getting these upper respiratory infections and it was difficult to know what was going on because we didn’t have testing.”
During her illness, Kass was also doing a lot of telemedicine from home as a way to help out. She was able to compare COVID coughs with patients and let them know they weren’t alone. “It was a really interesting experience in solidarity with my patients that I think made me a better doctor at that moment in a crisis,” she said.
The Northeast expanded the capacity of its hospitals in preparation for the surge — New York hospitals were ordered to double the number beds — and it was an overwhelming time for the entire health care system.
“It meant that we were taking care of a country’s worth of patients right here in the Northeast,” Kass said. “And we did an incredible job, as best we could, I think. We really did everything we could to give the best care we could to every patient.”
Kass was hopeful that the masking and distancing to prevent the spread would catch on around the country. “Our community banded together and it felt uniform and unified,” she said. “I was hopeful that was the way we were going to be across the entire pandemic. I hoped that the lessons of New York would blend to the rest of the country. It didn’t happen that way, but I think New York and New Jersey as a unit have still led the way because of our experience collectively in early 2020.”
Though there are waves of cases, hospitalizations and deaths — the United States recently broke 800,000 — lower New York hasn’t seen anything like what it saw that first spring. Still, the health care system and its workers are still struggling as variants and vaccines continue to present challenges. Many workers have left the field.
“I know a lot of people, nurses and physicians, who are not sure how much longer they can provide direct patient care,” Kass said. “And that’s a hard thing for people that love, love, love what they do.”
Shifting gears to her new role with HHS had little to do with escaping the frontlines of COVID-19 and more to do with having a unique opportunity to use her skills elsewhere for as long as it lasts, which should be at least through the end of the Biden administration.
“The idea that I have a job that I didn’t have to move to D.C. for is great because I do have those three kids that we moved to Scarsdale for and we just got here, so we definitely want to become embedded in the community,” Kass said. “It’s kind of in a lot of ways the best of both worlds for me. I get to do something that I think is meaningful and impactful, broader than I was doing in emergency services, but I get to use all the experiences I have from being there. Eventually hopefully I will go back to taking care of patients, but for now this is a different way for me to serve.”