Former health director ‘concerned’ as Council sets to confirm non-physician to lead department

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax Ben Becker is investigating if changes being made to the Florida Department of Health in Duval County are healthy choices.

Jacksonville City Council is expected to confirm interim administrator Antonio Nichols on Tuesday, although he’s not a physician – making him the first non-physician to permanently lead the Department of Health in Duval County.

“The state has politicized public health,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, who was the Director of the Duval County Department of Health from 1993-2005.

The health department serves nearly one million people, but Goldhagen said they are being underserved. “What’s your level of concern there’s not a physician in this role?” asked Becker. " I’m very concerned,” he said.

According to the Department’s website, Nichols has “over 20 years of public health experience and in 2014, Nichols transitioned to the administrative side of the department becoming the agency’s Finance and Accounting Director and Chief Financial Officer. Finally, in 2016, Nichols transitioned into the role as Assistant County Health Department Director for Administration and Operations and has provided leadership to many public health initiatives, most recently being 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 Governor Ron DeSantis. Ladapo echoes the Governor’s approach to health including COVID-19.

On April 7, a report surfaced that states Ladapo left out information from a state study about the COVID-19 vaccine.

He recommended against young men getting the vaccine last October based on a significantly increased risk of cardiac-related death, but the study states just the opposite - that the chance is only “modestly increased.”

“In this situation, it was deceitful and violated every ethical principle for research,” Goldhagen said. “That is his modus operandi, he has a political agenda and is attached to the Governor.”

But how much does it attach to Antonio Nichols?

Becker emailed Nichols to ask him if he aligned with Ladapo and if he can act independently, but Becker never heard back.

“I do not think it trickles down at all,” said Jacksonville City Council Vice-President Ron Salem who is expected to take over as Council President on July 1.

Salem who is a pharmacist said he met with Nichols last week and said it’s common for non-physicians to run health departments. “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 out of 67 Florida counties are led by someone without a medical background including St. Johns County. According to an investigation by The Associated Press and Keiser Health News in 2020, Duval County cut health department staffing by 51% from 2008 to 2019 and slashed spending per person from $91 to just $34 — a whopping 63% decrease.

As for Goldhagen, this is about more than just COVID.

“COVID is not a one-off. We had HIV, SARS, MERS, H1N1, Ebola, Zika - COVID-19 is just one of a number of viral infections that have in the past and will continue to impact us and if we think for one moment we don’t need to depend on public health we are not being honest with ourselves.”

Last year, Florida became the first state to officially recommend against COVID-19 vaccines for healthy children.

Florida health officials recently paused reporting COVID-19 infections and deaths to the federal government on a regular basis.

Becker reached out to the Governor’s office about its role in state health and is waiting to hear back.

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