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Former Connecticut public health commissioner takes the helm at Orange County health department

Orlando Sentinel - 12/26/2019

Dec. 26--Dr. Raul Pino's story is the story of many immigrants. He arrived here with his family and did what he had to do to survive in a new country.

Trained as a plastic surgeon in his native Cuba, he and his family left there as political refugees in 1995 and landed in Connecticut. He gave up being a physician and took odd jobs until he could once again find a job in health care, this time in public heath.

He graduated from medical school in Cuba in 1987 and finished his residency in plastic surgery at the Naval Hospital in Havana. He later obtained a master's degree in public health from UConn School of Medicine.

In May, Pino was named interim director for Florida Department of Health in Orange County after the former director, Dr. Kevin Sherin, retired.

Pino, 56, officially took on the leadership position this month. He spoke with the Orlando Sentinel about his experiences and what he sees as the challenges in his new role.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your first job in the U.S.?

My first job was picking blueberries in Glastonbury, Conn., and it was the hottest summer. They're so difficult to pick. I couldn't eat blueberries for years after that. Then I worked at a grocery supermarket on the weekend, changing the prices from Saturdays to Sundays.

My then-wife was also a physician and she got a job doing home visitation for pregnant moms and I was her driver because I had my drivers license first.

How did you find your way into public health?

I eventually started working at Hartford Hospital as a patient-care assistant. And then I went to the Hispanic Health Council where I really immersed myself in public health. I did research on the association between sexually transmitted diseases and domestic violence.

I then went to Institute for Community Research in Hartford and continued my research on sexually transmitted diseases.

I was then hired by the Connecticut Department of Public Health as an epidemiologist and then the city of Hartford appointed me to be the health director for about five years. I eventually became the deputy commissioner for the state Department of Public Health and then became the state commissioner in 2015 until April this year.

Isn't the job as the director of Orange County health department a step down for you?

I didn't think about it as a step up or step down. The way I saw it was that I didn't have this experience in my portfolio as a public official. I've done cities. I've done the state. I've never worked in a county. So that's what really made this job attractive to me.

What are some of the biggest public health challenges in Orange County?

Like most places in the country, we're experiencing an opioid crisis and that will continue to be with us for some time.

We're facing a Hepatitis A outbreak around the state. In Orange County, we have several efforts, including partnerships and developing strategies to reach out to individuals in the county jail.

In Orange County, we also have the second highest incidence of HIV and that's an important challenge that we have to face.

What can we do to reduce the HIV rates here?

In any HIV population, there are 20% of people who have HIV and don't know that they have it. Those people who don't know they have it are mostly the ones who are transmitting the disease. People who know they have the disease mostly protect themselves to protect others.

So the effort has to be on finding those individuals. We have to increase HIV testing and test the right population.

And another thing that we are behind many other parts of the nation is HIV testing in the ER. We need to test people who come to the emergency room.

Tell us about your family.

I have two children. My son was almost 5 when we arrived in the United States. He graduated from Cornell University with a [bachelor of arts] and my daughter was born here and she is at the University of Connecticut finishing her bachelor's degree.

I'm curious, did you try to practice medicine again after coming to the U.S.?

I took the boards once and failed by 11 points. But, we're talking 20 years ago in Connecticut. I wasn't in Florida where there are so many Cubans. No one really was there to teach me and guide me on what to do.

What you have to do is go back to study and don't stop taking the exams until you pass. And the exams at the time were $700 and I didn't have the money, so it wasn't feasible. So I decided consciously to go on with life. Not everyone needs to be a doctor.

nmiller@orlandosentinel.com.

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