JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The local health community and city leaders were left reeling Saturday after UF Health Jacksonville announced its CEO Dr. Leon Haley Jr. had died unexpectedly.
“It is with great sadness that we confirm the death of UF Health Jacksonville CEO Leon L. Haley Jr. Dr. Haley was a strong, inspirational leader and beloved son, father, friend and colleague. We ask that you keep his family in your prayers tonight and in the coming days,” the release said. “We do not have specific details of his passing at this time. We ask that you respect the privacy of Dr. Haley’s family, friends and colleagues at UF Health.”
According to an internal UF Health email obtained by News4Jax, Haley died after an accident Saturday in South Florida.
“As we work through the shock and sadness of this news, it’s important we show one another compassion and patience, as each of us grieves in our own way and in our own time. Programs are available throughout our system if you need to speak with someone,” the email read.
Haley has been one of the key faces in the fight against COVID-19 for local hospitals.
In mid-December, he stepped up to become the first person in Jacksonville to receive the Pfizer vaccine when it became available, setting an example for his staff and the rest of the city.
“This is a humbling moment,” Haley said at the time. “This is just the beginning of a long battle.”
More than seven months later, after what seemed like a lull, that battle shifted into gear again as the delta variant took hold and hospitals again began to be filled with coronavirus patients -- many of them unvaccinated.
Haley recently said COVID-19 patient visits increased 1,000% since mid-June, and he voiced concerns to News4Jax that vaccination rates among hospital staff are 50% or less.
RELATED: City leaders, colleagues mourn sudden loss of UF Health Jacksonville CEO
Chad Neilsen, director of accreditation and infection prevention at UF Health Jacksonville, said his colleague will be deeply missed, especially now.
Dr. Haley was a wonderful leader, and a friend. His absence will be deeply felt, especially right now as our hospital is struggling through a Covid surge. https://t.co/PaUVuNIXzu— Chad Neilsen (@MajEbola) July 24, 2021
Haley, who served as the dean of the UF College of Medicine – Jacksonville, became the first Black CEO of UF Health Jacksonville in January 2018. He was also vice president of health affairs of the University of Florida.
Haley often appeared on News4Jax to talk about the fight against COVID-19 as well as other medical issues making headlines. News4Jax news anchor Kent Justice often interviewed Haley.
“Beyond getting to know him through interviewing him, I would consider him a personal friend, especially over the last year and a half or so, even before the pandemic,” Justice said. “Getting to know him as a great leader, someone who was committed to the community and cared about other people.”
A pivotal moment in Haley’s legacy will be the time he received the COVID-19 vaccine on a News4Jax broadcast to publicly demonstrate to other African Americans that it was safe to take the vaccine.
“I noted that, and I think that made a difference,” Justice said. “I think we heard the reaction from people when he took that step and said, ‘Look, I’m not just telling you to do it. I’m doing it and I’m showing you because I want you to follow this example.’”
Kent said there were times when Haley would call him about social issues that were in the news and asked what he could do to help make things better.
According to a report from the Florida Times-Union, Haley was a Pittsburgh native who earned his bachelor’s degree from Brown University and his medical degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. He served as executive associated dean of the Emory School of Medicine and deputy senior vice president of medical affairs at Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta before coming to Jacksonville.