Photo Credit: UF Health CEO
By all accounts, Leon Haley Jr, M.D., was a beloved member of his family, community and workplace. The 56-year-old CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, part of University of Florida Health, was killed tragically in a personal watercraft accident, but his memory is inspiring hundreds to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Haley became CEO at UF Health Jacksonville in 2018, and during his short tenure, he made a big impact in the local medical community. He put the full weight of his position into advocating for the COVID-19 vaccine. When the initial doses of the Pfizer vaccine shipped to his hospital, Haley was first in line to get the shot on December 14th, 2020. “This is a humbling moment,” said Haley. “We will do all we can to help lead the effort to cascade the vaccine out to other priority groups in the community and around the state as more doses become available … particularly to underserved populations and those who are most vulnerable.”
Haley was the first African American CEO of UF Health Jacksonville and strongly promoted the vaccine for other African Americans. In a virtual town hall coordinated by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus, Haley warned against underestimating the virus that he saw ravaging the community. “The population of Jacksonville, Duval County, is about 30% African American, but yet 60% of our admissions have been African American,” Haley noted in January of 2021. Jeanne Miller from the Jacksonville Civic Council said, “He led the way in working with our African American members to develop an initiative that would really raise awareness and help educate members but also take on difficult social justice issues in the community.”
On the day before his untimely passing, Haley personally administered 15 COVID-19 shots across different units. He expressed worry over low vaccination rates among his staff — a rate that would jump as people began getting the shots in his honor. At a vaccine rally on July 30 for staff and faculty, UF Health Jacksonville was able to vaccinate 152 people. Hospital employee Melissa Caperton had held off on vaccination because of her medical history, but Haley’s passing pushed her and her husband to get vaccinated in memory of a “great leader.” Jackson Energy Authority, an electric, water and sewer utility where Haley served on the board, hosted an event where 143 people were vaccinated. More pop-up clinics and events are planned.
While the hospital struggles with the daily strain of the coronavirus, it is tapping into Haley’s spirit to keep the vaccination drive strong. The hospital created a sticker that reads “Haley hero” to go on the ID badges of vaccinated staff. “He worked tirelessly … against the pandemic,” said Kent Fuchs, president of University of Florida. “If there was an Olympics for fighting COVID in Florida, Dr. Haley would win the gold.”