Health department media silence raises questions

Department should use media to help spread message, former director says

By Jim Piggott - Reporter

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Health departments typically use the media to get information out to the public as quickly as possible, particularly during ongoing crises, like the current Zika outbreak.

But in Florida, that open policy seems to have changed.

There are currently six cases of Zika in Duval County, five in Alachua County, three in Clay County and three in St. Johns County.

Since Zika cases first showed up in Northeast Florida, News4Jax has been asked the health department to explain what it's doing to keep the community safe.

The response to interview requests has been: “We cannot comment. Talk to Tallahassee.” The state health department responded to an interview request by asking News4Jax to submit any questions about Zika in writing.

“The media is a partner with public health in addressing these issue and making sure the public is aware and informed and knowledgeable in how to deal with these public health issues,” said Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, former director of the Duval County Department of Health.

The mission statement of the Duval County Health Department is to protect, promote and improve the health of all people in Florida.

But Goldhagen, who now works with Community Pediatrics with UF Health Jacksonville, said the health department is not as open as it used to be.

“Local public health needs to be working hand and glove with the media in order to make sure our community is aware of the situation and knows how to respond,” Goldhagen said. “Family and parents need to be aware of that. The community needs to be aware of that. The most important asset and resource ally is the media, which is the way we can access the community.”

The current Duval County Health Department director, Dr. Kelli Wells, and the department's head of communications, Charles Griggs, attended a City Council session Tuesday on Zika. They gave the council useful information about the role the department is playing, including their plans in case local transmission Zika cases are reported in North Florida.

“The other thing we're doing is planning a training for door-to-door investigation in preparation for local response, should we have to do that,” Wells said.

Our reporter at the meeting had some follow-up questions for Wells about that training, but both Wells and Griggs declined to talk on camera and quickly left City Hall.

Last week, News4Jax received an email response to a request for an interview with Wells about what's being done to combat Zika in Jacksonville. The answer: We are unable to fulfill your interview request at this time.

The silence appears to be the same in other locations across Florida, including the panhandle.

The only state official openly talking to the media about Zika seems to be Gov. Rick Scott.

Scott announced Wednesday that the Florida Department of Health has confirmed that there are no new locally acquired Zika infections to report, which leaves the total for Zika cases contracted by Florida mosquitoes at 15.

Scott said he has directed the state health department to provide Zika testing to pregnant women at all county health departments at no cost. To ensure that Zika tests are processed as quickly as possible, the health department will make additional lab services available to handle the expected increase in tests being administered.

“At this time, DOH continues to believe that active local transmissions are only occurring in the same one-square-mile area of Miami,” Scott said. “While this is good news, and proof that our education and mosquito control efforts are working, we will not become complacent and will continue to aggressively fight against the Zika virus.”

News4Jax has made public records requests about the change in media policy within the local health department, but we have not heard back yet.

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