Jacksonville, Fla. — Action News Jax Ben Baker investigates whether the Florida Department of Health’s changes in Duval County are a healthy choice.
The Jacksonville City Council is expected to confirm interim administrator Antonio Nichols on Tuesday, although he is not a physician — making him the first non-physician to permanently lead the health department in Duval County.
“The state has politicized public health,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, who was director of the Duval County Health Department from 1993-2005.
The health department serves about a million people, but Goldhagen said they are being underserved. “What is your level of concern about not having a physician in this role?” Baker asked. “I’m very concerned,” he said.
According to the department’s website, Nichols “has more than 20 years of experience in public health, and in 2014, Nichols transitioned from the administrative side of the department, becoming the agency’s director of finance and accounting and chief financial officer. Finally, in 2016, Nichols transitioned to the role of assistant county health department director for administration and operations and provided leadership on many public health initiatives, most recently the agency’s COVID-19 emergency response for our county.”
Nichols is being appointed by Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo, who was appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Ladapo echoes the governor’s approach to health, including Covid-19.
On April 7, a report emerged that Ladapo had omitted data from a state study on the COVID-19 vaccine.
He recommended against young people getting the vaccine last October based on the significantly increased risk of cardiac-related death, but the study said just the opposite — that the chance was only “modestly increased.”
“In this situation, it was fraudulent and violated every ethical principle for research,” Goldhagen said. “That’s his modus operandi, he has a political agenda and is aligned with the governor.”
But how much is it connected to Antonio Nicholls?
Baker emailed Nichols to ask if he was aligned with Ladapo and if he could work independently, but Baker never heard back.
“I don’t think it’s going to go down at all,” said Jacksonville City Council Vice-President Ron Salem.
Salem, who is a pharmacist, said he met with Nichols last week and said it’s common for non-physicians to run the health department. “I think he’s an independent thinker, and I think our health department is in good hands,” Salem said.
According to the Florida Department of Health website, 31 of Florida’s 67 counties, including St. Johns County, lead the way with no medical background. According to a 2020 investigation by The Associated Press and Keizer Health News, Duval County cut health department staff by 51% from 2008 to 2019 and reduced per capita spending from $91 to just $34 – a whopping 63% reduction.
For Goldhagen, it’s more than just Covid.
“Covid is not a single one. We’ve had HIV, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika – COVID-19 is just one of many viral infections that have happened in the past and will continue to affect us, and if we think for a moment we don’t need to depend on the public health we’re dealing with. Not honest.”
Last year, Florida became the first state to officially recommend against the COVID-19 vaccine for healthy children.
Florida health officials recently stopped routinely reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths to the federal government.
Baker reached out to the governor’s office about its role in state health and is waiting to hear back.
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