When the pandemic arrived in Florida final 12 months, the state had a place prepared made for a public well being disaster just like the one on its doorstep: The Deputy Secretary for County Well being Programs.
On paper, it’s the third-highest rating place within the state’s well being company due to its key position in coordinating with well being workplaces in all 67 counties. “Stopping epidemics and unfold of illness” is within the job description.
However the job was vacant when Gov. Ron DeSantis took workplace in January of 2019. It was nonetheless empty final March when Florida recorded its first two COVID-19 instances. And it remained unfilled within the ensuing months because the virus unfold to each nook of the state. An interim rent was made in early December, after 1 million Floridians had turn out to be contaminated and greater than 19,000 individuals had died.
In January, the Tampa Bay Instances filed a public data request with the Division of Well being for paperwork associated to the emptiness. After a five-month search, the division stated there have been no data attentive to the request. Which means that, from the beginning of 2019 by means of the primary 9 months of the pandemic, the division had not marketed that it had a gap for this senior-level place. It had not posted inner notices to encourage workers in Tallahassee or on the state’s 67 county workplaces to think about making use of. It hadn’t sought or obtained purposes or resumes.
One place wouldn’t have prevented the state’s demise toll from climbing throughout a worldwide pandemic. However Dr. Leslie Beitsch, a top-ranking official within the state Division of Well being till 2018, stated the confusion and pressure that was a trademark of the state’s response to the disaster was possible made worse by this lacking hyperlink within the chain.
It’s the job of the Deputy Secretary for County Well being Programs to not solely clarify emergency directives from Tallahassee to the county workplaces, but in addition get suggestions from the native stage on what methods are working and what should not, stated Beitsch, who served within the position below former governors Lawton Chiles and Jeb Bush.
“What we’ve been seeing for 2 years is a communication channel that solely goes in a single path,” stated Beitsch. “That works effectively in an emergency setting for some time. Now into month 14, that’s straining all points of the system past restore.”
Marc Yacht, the previous director of the Pasco County Division of Well being, agreed.
“Not filling that place is simply creating one other weak point within the circulate of knowledge,” Yacht stated.
The division crammed the place with an interim rent late final 12 months. Courtney Coppola, then-chief of employees to Surgeon Common Scott Rivkees, provided the place to Mark Lander, the director of the Marion County workplace of the Division of Well being, in a letter dated Dec. 3, which listed an annual wage of $126,000. There was not an software from Lander on file with the division.
The division wouldn’t make Lander out there for an interview. In an announcement, Division of Well being spokesman Jason Mahon declined to clarify the extended opening in its senior management group, however he stated the company “has at all times ensured there may be shut coordination and communication throughout all 67 counties.”
“The division used multi-layered communication, together with having common calls with county well being officers, offering steady steering to county well being officers from specialists in pandemic response and epidemiology, and having county well being officers come to the (emergency operations heart) to make sure a neighborhood perspective was considered as statewide selections had been made,” stated Mahon, who left the division shortly after making this assertion.
DeSantis inherited a state well being division in 2019 that had undergone a decade of cuts by his predecessors. About 3,700 public well being jobs had been eradicated by then-Gov. Rick Scott throughout his eight years in workplace. The state was so short-staffed firstly of the coronavirus outbreak that DeSantis needed to rent 100 college students and professors in a matter of days to help with the response.
However Scott left a Deputy Secretary for County Well being Programs in place when he exited the governor’s mansion: Paul Myers, the longtime head of the Alachua County Division of Well being workplace. Myers first ascended to the job in 2014 and stayed by means of Scott’s second time period.
When DeSantis took workplace, the place was vacant. It’s not clear why Myers left that position.
“To be introduced,” the division’s web site stated on the time on a web page reserved for the deputy secretary, in response to an Web archive.
Myers didn’t reply to an e-mail and a number of messages left on his workplace answering machine at his Alachua workplace.
All through the pandemic, the Tallahassee workplace of the Florida Division of Well being has tightly managed communications coming from its 67 county satellites across the state, many staffed by profession public workers with a long time of expertise and experience. Questions despatched to native well being departments by reporters are sometimes forwarded to a state communications group for response. (When the Instances requested the Pinellas County well being division workplace about its expertise working with and with out a Deputy Secretary for County Well being Programs, the questions had been redirected to Mahon.)
The South Florida Solar-Sentinel reported final 12 months that an worker within the state workplace ordered county employees in September to not concern press releases or publish on social media concerning the pandemic till the election was over.
Well being administrators had been additionally instructed to not present native faculty boards or schools with recommendation on when it was secure to reopen, the Palm Seashore Publish discovered. Certainly, at a key Hillsborough County College Board assembly to deal with faculty closures final August, Hillsborough Well being Division Director Dr. Douglas Holt wouldn’t weigh in.
“I signify the well being division right here,” Holt stated. “I’m offering technical help and recommendation. I wouldn’t have a place.”
A number of calls and emails to a spokesperson in Holt’s workplace weren’t returned.
The method ensured few dissenters from native well being officers as DeSantis eschewed nationwide public well being warnings and took an aggressive stance to reopening Florida’s theme parks, companies and colleges. Nevertheless it additionally created confusion amongst cities and counties as DeSantis made sweeping bulletins at press conferences that took hours to make clear in writing. Typically, these decrees stood at odds with the chief orders he signed, and native leaders couldn’t get solutions about what to do.
“Our county employees and authorized division labored additional time to know what was being stated publicly and what was coming down in precise orders,” Hillsborough County Commissioner Kimberly Overman stated. “That (deputy director) in all probability would’ve made an enormous distinction. It wouldn’t have been a guessing sport on the place we go from right here. However clearly it wasn’t their precedence.”
On paper, the Deputy Secretary for County Well being Programs was created to fill the void. The particular person in that job “ensures that county well being workplaces assist Division priorities” and “promotes collaboration with exterior stakeholders,” in response to a job description offered by the state.
Yacht stated when he was on the Pasco well being division, administrators usually coordinated with prime secretaries in Tallahassee, who in flip inspired him and his colleagues to fulfill with elected officers and discuss in open boards about public well being considerations.
Leaving a important job vacant for 2 years is a part of a years-long struggle by governors to shift public well being coverage to a handful of choice makers who aren’t in the neighborhood and received’t act out of line, Yacht stated.
“Within the larger image,” Yacht stated, “it’s simply one other instance of undermining what must be a coordinated communication among the many counties to develop methods that have a look at threats.”