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The state sidelines a top health official after email, and the housing affordability 'emergency' in Florida

Dr. Raul Pino, left, Director of Florida Department of Health in Orange County speaks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, during a discussion about opening businesses such as barber shops and nail and hair salons during at a news conference Saturday, May 2, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/AP
Dr. Raul Pino, left, director of Florida Department of Health in Orange County, speaks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis during a discussion about opening businesses such as barber shops and nail and hair salons during at a news conference Saturday, May 2, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The top state health official in Orlando is put on leave after encouraging his staff to get the covid vaccine. Plus, the housing crisis is spreading across the state.

The state of Florida ordered Orlando’s top health official to stay home this week after he encouraged his employees to get vaccinated.

Dr. Raul Pino is the top Health Department administrator in Orange County. Earlier this month he sent an email to his staff after finding out how many of them had received any doses of COVID-19 vaccines. Of more than 500 workers, just one in seven had been fully vaccinated — including a booster shot.

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The state says he was placed on leave as it investigates whether any laws were broken. In November, a new state law banned employers from mandating workers be vaccinated, including government workers.

"Dr. Pino is a professional health officer, and I will tell you that he puts the health, safety and welfare of the citizens first, and he is really apolitical," said Jerry Demings, mayor of Orange County.

In Florida, Department of Health workers are state employees, including those working at the county level.

"He served as an advisor to me during this nearly two years that we have been dealing with [the pandemic] in Florida," Demings said. "I trust him. I trusted his opinion because he provided an unadulterated opinion based on his training, knowledge and experience."

Demings, a Democrat whose wife is Rep. Val Demings and is running for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, called Pino's administrative leave "a shame." Demings traces the state's action against Pino to the nomination of Dr. Joseph Ladapo as surgeon general.

Ladapo has been a critic of many pandemic protocols, questioning the effectiveness of masks and necessity of vaccines.

Demings said, "We all know across America that this particular surgeon general and governor has approached the pandemic differently than perhaps I would have approached this. And sometimes we've been at odds over time about how to contain the virus."

The action taken against Pino by the state agency is "a violation of the fundamental principles of public health," according to Dr. Jeff Goldhagen. chief of the Division of Community and Societal Pediatrics at UF Health Jacksonville. Goldhagen was the director of the Duval County Health Department for 12 years until 2005.

"It's a violation of the expectations of the community. Dr. Pino is a physician who takes an oath to always do what's in the best interests of his patients. So he was doing nothing more than ensuring that his oath was maintained," Goldhagen said.

On Friday during a news event in Sarasota, Gov. Ron DeSantis was asked again if he has received a COVID-19 vaccine booster. He did not directly answer the question, calling it a private matter.

Demings disagreed.

"When you are a public official, especially an elected official who makes decisions, I think it is germane to the public in terms of total transparency that if you are an elected official, especially in the position of governor, that is something that the public deserves to know about."

Deming tested positive for COVID-19 earlier in the week and shared he was "triple vaccinated."

Housing Crisis

Over the past six months, Florida’s home prices have risen faster than those of any other state. That’s according to a new Washington Post analysis of Zillow data. Home prices here are quickly catching up to higher-cost states like New York and Virginia. And, first-time homebuyers are being priced out of the market, often by corporate investors able to pay cash and above the asking price.

But while home prices rise, Florida paychecks are growing at a slower rate than the national average. In the six months ending in November, when home prices in the state went up 16 percent, average hourly earnings in Florida were up only 2.1 percent.

At the same time, rents are skyrocketing in Florida. They’re up nearly 30 percent, causing some Florida cities to consider housing states of emergency. The growing lack of affordable housing presents an emerging political challenge for Gov. DeSantis. He has frequently argued that his hands-off approach to the coronavirus pandemic is bringing as many as 800 new residents per day to the state, putting more strains on the demand for a place to call home.

Since 1992, Florida has used a funding mechanism to pay for affordable housing, the Sadowski Trust Fund. It’s funded through real estate transfer taxes. But Florida legislators have consistently diverted the money to other things, including a decision last year to shift $200 million to fight sea level rise. This year, though, the governor has proposed spending all of the projected Sadowski Trust Fund’s money for the upcoming year — about $355 million — on affordable housing.

Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando) wrote a letter in December to the governor, co-signed by 23 legislative Democrats, requesting the state declare a state of emergency for housing affordability.

"We were seeing rent hikes of 10 percent, 20 even 30 percent, which Floridians just can't afford," he said.

The letter asked for Attorney General Ashley Moody to declare any rent hike in excess of 10 percent to be price gouging.

"It is dire. It is a crisis," said Jaimie Ross, president and CEO of the Florida Housing Coalition. She said her group is "laser focused" on the budget. "I'm very grateful also to Gov. DeSantis, who for the very first time [since] he came into office, has put in his proposed budget to the Legislature, fully funding (the Sadowski Trust Fund)."

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.