The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday placed a top official on administrative leave after he allegedly encouraged employees to get vaccinated against coronavirus.
Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County, sent an email to employees earlier this month that was critical of the agency’s vaccination rate. Pino, a leading figure in the public response to the pandemic in the Orlando area, noted that only 77 of the 568 staffers had received booster shots and 219 employees had gotten two doses of coronavirus vaccines, according to WFTV, which first reported the story.
“I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated,” he wrote on Jan. 4. “We have been at this for two years, we were the first to give vaccines to the masses, we have done more than 300,000 and we are not even at 50%, pathetic.”
Weesam Khoury, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, confirmed to The Washington Post that Pino was placed on administrative leave. He did not offer details on what led to the decision or how long Pino would be on leave, but suggested that state officials are investigating whether the Orange County official violated state law. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, R, signed into law in the fall a measure that prohibits state government agencies from implementing vaccine mandates.
“As the decision to get vaccinated is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers, the employee in question has been placed on administrative leave, and the Florida Department of Health is conducting an inquiry to determine if any laws were broken in this case,” Khoury said in a statement. “The Department is committed to upholding all laws, including the ban on vaccine mandates for government employees and will take appropriate action once additional information is known.”
A screenshot of the email posted to Twitter by NBC News reporter Marc Caputo shows that Pino may have also accessed potentially confidential worker health information.
Pino, 58, did not immediately return a request for comment early Wednesday. Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said the governor’s office was “limited” in what it could say during an active investigation.
The move in Florida comes as U.S. public health leaders are urging caution at a time when the country has yet to reach its peak with the highly-transmissible omicron variant. While the explosion of cases has begun to plateau in some areas, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said Sunday that “the next few weeks will be tough” as the country inches toward a national peak in cases.
While Florida is still averaging nearly 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day, the rate is down 22% compared to the previous seven-day average, according to data tracked by The Post. Hospitalizations are also on the decline in Florida.
Sixty-four percent of the state is fully vaccinated, which is slightly higher than the national rate of 63%.
DeSantis, who has opposed vaccination and mask mandates throughout the pandemic, signed a measure in November that prohibited government agencies from implementing vaccine mandates and restricted private businesses from having vaccine requirements unless they gave workers the chance to opt out for medical reasons or religious beliefs.
“This is the strongest piece of legislation that’s been enacted anywhere in the country in this regard,” the governor said at a news conference.