A health official who helped lead Florida’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been put on administrative leave as state officials investigate whether he tried to compel employees to get vaccinated.
The state health agency is conducting an inquiry into Raul Pino, director of the Florida department of health in Orange county, to “determine if any laws were broken in this case”, the state department of health press secretary, Jeremy Redfern, said in an email.
Sources told WFTV that Pino was placed on administrative leave after he emailed staff members at the Orange county department of health regarding Covid-19 vaccination rates on 4 January.
In the email, Pino wrote: “I have a hard time understanding how we can be in public health and not practice it.”
He added that he had an analyst examine vaccination data among employees and that out of the department’s 568 active staff members, only 77 had received a Covid booster dose, 219 had two doses of the vaccine and 34 had only one dose.
“I am sorry but in the absence of reasonable and real reasons it is irresponsible not to be vaccinated,” he wrote. “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.”
Last year, Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, signed into law a measure that bans government agencies from implementing vaccine mandates and restricts private businesses from having vaccine requirements unless they allow workers to opt out for medical reasons, religious beliefs, immunity based on a previous infection, regular testing or agreement to wear protective gear.
“We’re going to stand up for Floridians’ jobs, stand up for Floridians’ livelihoods, and stand up for freedom,” DeSantis said at the time in a statement regarding the vaccine mandate ban.
The state’s department of health has not yet disclosed the reason why Pino has been put on leave or what he is accused of. It has, however, said that the “decision to get vaccinated is a personal medical choice that should be made free from coercion and mandates from employers”.
It went on to add: “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 … 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.”
In the past, Pino spoke at numerous Orange county Covid-19 briefings, providing updates regarding the pandemic and has worked closely with Mayor Jerry Demings, who has criticized DeSantis’s handling of the pandemic.
Carlos Guillermo Smith, a Democratic state lawmaker, has called Pino’s suspension “political”.
Associated Press contributed to this report