Last Tuesday, Jan. 19, was “Secretary Mandy Cohen Day” in Durham. But Dr. Cohen, the North Carolina secretary of health and human services, didn’t come to Durham, nor could she stand before the City Council as members honored her with a key to the city.
It marked the first time someone has received a key to the city without actually being in the city. Quite appropriately, Cohen was following her own COVID-19 safety directives to avoid indoor gatherings (the City Council meets by Zoom these days). That directive and many others from the state have surely saved countless lives, which has prompted considerable praise for Cohen’s handling of the pandemic as North Carolina’s top health official.
During the meeting, Mayor Steve Schewel honored Cohen for her “exceptional service to our city and its people.”
“We are only able to present the key to you virtually tonight,” Schewel said. “We do have a real key to give, but we’re following your COVID-safe instructions.”
Schewel said the key will be kept at City Hall along with the proclamation in “beautiful physical form.” She’ll receive both once city officials determine it is safe to return to City Hall for mundane duties such as mailing packages.
After the meeting, Schewel said he was sorry she could not attend. “I would love to have shaken her hand. I would love for her to have actually heard a crowd of people rising and applauding.”
Cohen, who took part in the meeting while sitting with her family by the stone fireplace of their Raleigh home, said she felt both lucky and saddened to have received the honor without leaving her front door.
“It’s amazing to be in your own home and still be connected to everyone,” she said in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “But, we miss being in person, as everyone does. There’s an intangible aspect there … we try to replace it, but it’s never really the same.”
Cohen said she was grateful she could share the moment with her husband and young daughters.
“It’s been a hard year not just on me, but on all of our families, so it was nice to be able to include them in the moment and for them to hear how my work and our team’s work has been impacting the state.”
Cohen’s key recognizes her response to COVID-19, but she has other public health responsibilities. Since her appointment by Gov. Roy Cooper in 2017, Cohen has worked to combat substance abuse, raise mental health awareness and close the health care coverage gap. She has earned Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Leadership in Public Health Practice Award and been named one of Modern Healthcare’s Top 25 Women Leaders in Healthcare.
“She is leading probably the most difficult, complex department that we have in state government,” Cooper said during the meeting. “And I’m grateful for her everyday.”
Cohen said she is eager to visit the city.
“We spend, as a family, a fair amount of time playing in Durham,” she said. “And we look forward to being able to do that again.”
In photo above: The City Council honored Mandy Cohen, lower left, during its Zoom meeting on Jan. 19.