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Florida health official placed on leave after encouraging employees to get vaccinated

Raul Pino, state health officer in Florida's Orange County, speaks about the coronavirus infection rate in the county during a news briefing at the Orange County Administration Building on Aug. 9. (Rich Pope/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service/Getty Images)
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The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday placed a top official on administrative leave after he allegedly encouraged employees to get vaccinated against the 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 percent, pathetic,” he wrote, apparently referring to the 219 employees who have had two vaccine doses and not those who have also had boosters.

He added: “I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it.”

Weesam Khoury, a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health, confirmed to The Washington Post that Pino was placed on administrative leave. She 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.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) decried coronavirus-related mandates at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas on Nov. 6. (Video: The Washington Post)

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 of 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.

Omicron hasn’t peaked in U.S., surgeon general says, warning that ‘next few weeks will be tough’

While Florida is still averaging nearly 50,000 new coronavirus infections a day, the rate is down 22 percent compared with the previous seven-day average, according to data tracked by The Post.

Sixty-four percent of the state is fully vaccinated, which is slightly higher than the national rate of 63 percent.

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 at the time.

Pino, who has led the health agency in Florida’s fifth-most-populous county since 2019, left Cuba as a political refugee more than 25 years ago. He settled in New England and took on odd jobs, including picking blueberries in Connecticut, the Orlando Sentinel reported. Pino, who had graduated from medical school in Cuba, returned to working in health care, eventually graduating from the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and being hired as an epidemiologist at the Connecticut Department of Public Health.

Since the start of the pandemic, Pino has been a constant presence at coronavirus news briefings with Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings (D), outlining best practices and safety recommendations. He has repeatedly urged residents to get vaccinated.

“Clearly, vaccines are working for us … and are the solution to this crisis,” Pino said at a news conference last month. “The vaccine continues to be effective against the variants.”

In his email earlier this month, Pino wrote that less than 14 percent of the Orange County agency’s staffers had received booster shots, according to WFTV. He added that just under 39 percent of employees had gotten two vaccines doses and about another 6 percent had gotten a single dose.

Democrats in the state were quick to criticize DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health over Pino’s being placed on administrative leave for encouraging vaccination.

“So he got in trouble for asking his public health workers about public health?!!?” tweeted state Rep. Anna V. Eskamani (D), who represents Orange County.

State Rep. Carlos G. Smith, a Democrat representing central Florida, was so upset over the state disciplining Pino that the lawmaker tweeted in all-caps, “IT’S HIS JOB!”

“This is not okay,” he added.

Coronavirus cases spiked globally in the first weeks of 2022, despite record-high vaccination rates. Here’s how the omicron variant took off. (Video: Jackie Lay, John Farrell/The Washington Post)

Paulina Firozi contributed to this report.

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