TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Two of the top public health officials in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration — responsible for tracking and preventing the spread of communicable diseases — have left their positions in recent months.
The departures come as public health is increasingly being politicized, and some experts say it leaves the state facing a “serious health risk.
Late last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an alert after four cases of malaria, which is spread by mosquitoes, were found in Florida, the first time in two decades. As a result, the Florida Health Department has issued an advisory on mosquito-borne illnesses.
DeSantis’ hands-off approach during the height of the Covid pandemic made him a star with conservatives nationally, and he regularly touts his strategy in his 2024 presidential campaign. But the approach has also given Florida the reputation of being ground zero for how the division in public health administration is treated.
The openings are in the Florida Health Department’s Bureau of Epidemiology, which plays a key role in monitoring and combating the spread of disease in the state.
The open positions include the head of the bureau, which oversees many of the state’s core public health functions. It has been vacant since last month, when former bureau chief Clayton Weiss transferred to the Florida Department of Corrections.
The position not only focuses on coordinating the detection and prevention of diseases spreading throughout the state, but it also promotes immunization and runs the refugee health program, which provides health services to refugees who end up in Florida after being resettled in the United States.
“These are critical public health functions,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert and professor at Florida International University. “There has, unfortunately, been recent politicization of the use of vaccines and health services for refugees and other immigrants, which may explain the challenges in filling this vital position.”
A second key post, the administrator of the bureau’s surveillance division, has been vacant since March, when Thomas Troelstrup left to take a job with a private company. The division he previously led is tasked with tracking the spread of communicable diseases and houses Florida’s reportable disease data system.
“The political issues involving surveillance and reporting of Covid-19 also help explain the challenges with identifying an individual to head the Bureau of Epidemiology’s surveillance division,” said Marty, who advised former Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez — now a Republican member of Congress — during the pandemic.
“Not filling these vital positions is a serious health risk for Florida,” she said.
Neither Weiss nor Troelstrup returned requests seeking comment.
Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, said the vacant posts are “immensely important positions.” He said it is important to find the qualified people for the roles, which can be difficult.
“While it is vital to fill these positions in a timely manner, it’s also critical to find the right people to serve in these roles,” he said. “One thing I know is that the work continues to get done.”
Florida Health Department spokesman Jae Williams confirmed that the positions are vacant. He said that it is a notoriously difficult industry to find qualified applicants, and that the budget recently signed by DeSantis gave the department almost $19 million that can be used for recruiting.
“Epidemiology is a highly competitive field,” he said. “The budget includes over $18.6 million in budget authority to the Department of Health to further aid in recruitment and retention.”
A spokesman for DeSantis’ office did not directly respond to questions, instead referring NBC News to the state Health Department’s responses.
Williams said Florida still has public health experts across the state, including in county-level health departments, which are overseen by the state Health Department.
“The department employs hundreds of epidemiologists across the state, including within all 67 county health departments, working around the clock to protect the health of Floridians and promptly responding to any risk to public health,” he said.
Williams also noted that State Epidemiologist Carina Blackmore remains on the job, and that Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo has a doctorate in public health from Harvard University.
Marty said there are epidemiologists throughout the state, but “there should be a central assessment of the data to help provide the right resources to the right site at the right time.”
Ladapo, who leads the state Health Department, was appointed by DeSantis in September 2021 after openly questioning the effectiveness of the Covid vaccines, skepticism he has continued to discuss.
Though DeSantis was originally a vocal supporter of the Covid vaccines, he eventually started disparagingly referring to them as the “jabs” and took formal steps to limit their usage in the state. That includes things such as making Florida the only state in the country not to reorder Covid vaccines for children and asking the Florida Supreme Court to investigate the “wrongdoing” with the vaccines.
DeSantis has defended his approach to pandemic response since announcing his bid for president May 24. That includes regularly hitting former President Donald Trump — who is widely seen as the GOP front-runner — for his fast-tracking of Covid vaccines and not firing Dr. Anthony Fauci, who, as the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, became the face of the Trump administration’s pandemic response, but is now despised by Republican base voters.
“We held the line when freedom itself hung in the balance,” DeSantis said last month at Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst’s annual roast and ride fundraiser. “We refused to let our state descend into some type of Fauci-an dystopia, where people’s livelihoods were ruined and their freedoms were curtailed.”
Marty, the Florida International University disease expert, said that DeSantis’ approach to public health could not only dissuade qualified public health officials from wanting to take jobs in Florida, but also put the state at risk.
“Being blind to data that helps assess emerging outbreaks delays a proper response and planning for resources,” she said. “These delays can and will cost lives, negatively impact disability-adjusted life years, and cause harm to society and the economy.”