Maria Stahl’s four decades in public health started and ended with the biggest medical crises of the times.
When she began as a public health nurse in the 1980s, HIV and AIDS was ravaging the country. Now, as the chief administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Brevard, Stahl is stepping down just as the United States is about to pass the 1 million death mark from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The last two years have been stressful,” Stahl told FLORIDA TODAY, on her next-to-last day in office, with a wry smile.
It’s not an expression of hers many may be familiar with.
Often, public health officials serve with little public recognition. But during the height of the pandemic, Stahl became a familiar, serious face, appearing regularly on county Facebook Live broadcasts, updating residents with COVID-19 data, encouraging people to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines for face coverings, social distancing, hand hygiene and vaccines.
These were often difficult messages to sell.
Looking back on it, Stahl said that navigating the coronavirus pandemic was among the biggest challenges of her career because the nation was divided on everything from face masks to getting vaccinated.
In one key local action early in the pandemic, the Brevard County Policy Group, of which she was a member, voted 5-4 to close county beaches from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Fridays through Sundays as a way to help curb the spread of COVID-19 — only to have their vote reversed the next day, after the majority of Brevard County Commission expressed opposition to that plan.
Stahl supported the beach closings.
“The 5-4 split doesn’t surprise me,” Stahl said in an interview with FLORIDA TODAY, on the day before her tenure as FDOH-Brevard administrator would end. “We are split as a country.”
As head of the state department in Brevard, Stahl oversaw the 360 employees of the FDOH-Brevard at its offices in Melbourne, Titusville and Viera. She has worked at the agency since 1995, including as administrator since 2016.
Before that, Stahl worked at the Erie County Health Department and at Erie County Medical Center, both in Buffalo, New York, the city where she was born.
Stahl officially retired on Thursday, and Lake County’s DOH administrator/health officer, Aaron Kissler, is temporarily filling the position while the state continues its search for Stahl’s successor.
Brevard County Emergency Management Director John Scott — who appeared with Stahl on many of the COVID-19 Facebook Lives — said Stahl “has been a trusted and reliable partner during times of emergencies, whether it was during activations for hurricanes or for the COVID pandemic response. Brevard County Emergency Management has always had a good working relationship with FDOH-Brevard, and Maria has been one of the main driving forces behind that.”
Stahl said she has been most proud of some of the things less visible to the general public she and her department have worked on. That includes various community partnership to address prenatal and infant care; working to decrease maternal and infant mortality; and securing funding to help start a Nurse-Family Partnership program in Brevard.
The board and staff of the Space Coast Health Foundation worked closely with Stahl and the FDOH-Brevard on numerous issues to improve the health of Brevard residents over the years. She was given a special recognition by the foundation’s board at its April meeting.
“Maria served on the foundation’s first grant committee to a develop a process to assist uninsured women who were experiencing abnormal uterine bleeding,” said Johnette Gindling, president and chief executive officer of the Space Coast Health Foundation.
“In addition, Maria served on the foundation’s Pickett Responsive Grant Committee and the Health Advisory Council,” Gindling said. “Her service on these committees allowed for a collaborative approach to enhancing health for Brevard County residents.”
Stahl also has been an adjunct instructor since 2008 at the University of Central Florida College of Nursing.
One thing Stahl said she would like to see worked on further locally is finding ways to deal with the opioid crisis.
“There definitely needs to be more work in Brevard County on opioid prevention,” Stahl said. “There is some money, but it is a lot for treatment. I think we have take it one step further — go into more prevention.”
Stahl, who will be 65 in July, said her decision to retire at this time is a personal one that will allow her to spend with her family, as well as do more traveling within the United States and in Europe.
“I’ve truly enjoyed being part of the Department of Health,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed working in Brevard County. I love Brevard County. I’ve been a resident here for 27 years, and I’m staying here.”
Stahl came under media scrutiny at the start of the pandemic in March 2020, when it was reported that she had gone on a previously planned cruise, and had to self-isolate when she returned.
CDC guidelines change: New CDC COVID-19 guidelines ease need for wearing face masks in public in Brevard
Stahl was performing her regular duties remotely when she was returned from the cruise. She now says she believes the situation related to the cruise was unnecessarily blown out of proportion, noting that Brevard County had no reported COVID-19 cases at the time she took her cruise.
Stahl declined to get specifically into the politics surrounding the Florida Department of Health, or Gov. Ron DeSantis’ appointment in September of Dr. Joseph Ladapo as surgeon general and head of the FDOH, an appointment that has divided the medical community.
Stahl said her office — like the counterparts in Florida’s other 66 counties — takes direction from Tallahassee.
“We are 1/67 of the pie,” Stahl said. “It’s the governor’s right to put the surgeon general in there that he feels comfortable with. We are a state agency, and we don’t make policies (in Brevard). We follow policies” from the state DOH leadership in Tallahassee.
“Our legislators and our governor are the ones that make the laws, and the state agencies develop the procedures” to comply with the laws, Stahl said. “We don’t make the policies. We enforce the policies.”
Stahl was in the state’s Deferred Retirement Option Program, but could have stayed in the job longer than now, under the program’s rules. But Stahl said she let her boss in Tallahassee — the deputy secretary for county health systems — know in August of her plans to retire, and formally confirmed that in January.
Still, she is not surprised the job has not yet been filled, given past history.
“It’s a pretty long process,” Stahl said.
Stahl, for example, was promoted from nursing services director to administrator at FDOH-Brevard in November 2016, after the position was vacant for a year, following the November 2015 retirement of her predecessor, Dr. Heidar Heshmati. The FDOH administrator from Indian River County temporarily ran both Indian River and Brevard’s FDOH operations during that time.
That was actually Heshmati’s second retirement from the post. He initially retired in 2010, but later applied for his own vacancy and was rehired. (Stahl filled in as interim administrator from March to August 2010.)
Stahl said she has no plans to reseek her position in the future, as Heshmati did.
“You never say never,” Stahl said when asked about that possibility. “But probably not.”
Stahl said Kissler will work out of Brevard County part of the week and out of Lake County part of the week until Stahl’s successor is in place. He did similar double-duty recently while there was a vacancy in the FDOH administrator post in Volusia County.
Stahl said she is not getting involved in the hiring process for her successor. The decision on that will be up to the surgeon general, with concurrence from the Brevard County Commission after the person is selected.
But Stahl has this initial advice for her successor: “The biggest thing is we live in a wonderful county, and we live in a county that has great community collaboration. So the first thing would be to definitely continue working with the community partners and community collaboration on all health and wellness initiatives.”
Additionally, Stahl said the new Brevard health administrator should know that “we have wonderful employees. So get to learn and know each employee, and the great things that they do for our community.”
Dr. Jeffrey Stalnaker, chief clinical officer at Health First Inc., Brevard’s largest health care provider, said Stahl “has committed her life and career to improving the health and wellness of Brevard citizens for over 25 years — culminating in the recent COVID-19 pandemic.”
On behalf of Health First, Stalnaker thanked Stahl “for her partnership and collaboration, and her shared vision for creating a stronger and healthier Brevard. While her leadership will be missed by many, we are pleased that she has strongly positioned the Department of Health in Brevard to continue its vital mission.”
These were Maria Stahl’s positions at the Florida Department of Health-Brevard:
2016-2022: Administrator/health officer
2010-2016: Nursing services director
2003-2010: Executive community health nursing director (and also was interim administrator from March to August 2010)
2000-2003: Assistant community health nursing director/school health coordinator
1998-2000: Senior community health nursing supervisor/school health coordinator
1997-1998: Nursing program specialist/tuberculosis program coordinator
1995-1997: Senior community health nurse
1982-1994: Public health nurse for the Erie County Health Department in Buffalo, New York
1979-1982: Team leader/staff nurse for the Erie County Medical Center in Buffalo, New York
2014: Doctor of Nursing Practice, University of Central Florida
2008: Master of Science in Nursing, University of Central Florida
1979: Bachelor of Science in Nursing, University of Buffalo
This article originally appeared on Florida Today: Retiring Brevard health administrator reflects on career and COVID-19