A top Florida Department of Health official was suspended after he encouraged his staff to get vaccinated.
The development, first reported by local ABC News affiliate WFTV, centers on Dr. Raul Pino, director of the Florida Department of Health in Orange County. On January 4, Pino reportedly wrote an email to members of his staff expressing frustration around their apparent unwillingness to be immunized against COVID-19. Out of the agency's 568 staffers, Pino wrote, 219 had gotten two vaccine doses while only 77 had received a booster shot.
"I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated," Pino said in his email, adding: "I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it."
Florida Department of Health press secretary Jeremy Redfern told the Associated Press that the agency is now conducting a probe "to determine if any laws were broken" as a result of the email. In Florida, local public health offices, like Pino's, are centrally run by the state Department of Health.
"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," Redfern added. The agency also told WFTV that "the decision to get vaccinated is a personal choice that should be free from coercion and mandates from employers."
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Pino's suspension comes a month after a Miami Herald report that researchers at the University of Florida felt "external pressure" to erase COVID-19 data while working on behalf of an unknown state entity. Researchers said they were not allowed to "criticize the Governor of Florida or UF policies related to COVID-19 in media interactions," instilling an atmosphere of fear within the university.
Back in November, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis formally banned government agencies and private businesses from requiring employees to receive any dose of the vaccine, even suggesting that tax money would be provided to businesses that actively defy vaccine mandates, according to CNN.
"I told Floridians that we would protect their jobs and today we made that the law," DeSantis said at the time. "Nobody should lose their job due to heavy-handed COVID mandates and we had a responsibility to protect the livelihoods of the people of Florida. I'm thankful to the Florida Legislature for joining me in standing up for freedom."
DeSantis has also strengthened "parental rights" around COVID-19, ensuring that only parents – not school administrators – can decide whether their children need to wear masks or get vaccinated before going to school.
Roughly 64% of all Floridians have had two doses of the vaccine, according to state data. Florida is just now recovering from the unprecedented wave of omicron cases, during which the state hit a peak of about 126,000 new daily cases on average, according to The New York Times. WFLA reported back in December that Florida ranked among the five states with the highest pediatric hospitalizations throughout the country.