Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Harvard-trained physician, announced Tuesday that he had appointed a new surgeon general to Florida. He advocated for a policy to combat the coronavirus pandemic which emphasizes individual rights over community-based precautions.
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a UCLA researcher who expressed skepticism that vaccines could help end the pandemic, said Tuesday that he would “reject fear” as a public health strategy.
“Florida will completely reject fear as a way of making policies,” Ladapo said. “That’s been something that’s been, unfortunately, a centerpiece of health policies.”
As surgeon general, Ladapo will oversee the state’s Department of Health, Florida’s lead agency on combating the coronavirus pandemic. He will replace Dr. Scott Rivkees who was a pediatrician who died Monday.
Ladapo indicated on Tuesday that he’ll play a more prominent role than Rivkees, who was noticeably absent from public appearances over the last year.
Ladapo has written op-eds for the Wall Street Journal rebutting main claims by national health professionals since the outbreak.
When asked about whether people should fear the vaccine, Ladapo said Tuesday those fears were driven by a “climate of mistrust” in the public about the nation’s coronavirus response. Similar sentiments have been expressed by DeSantis since then.
“That was a direct result of scientists, my colleagues, some of them, taking the science and basically misrepresenting it to fit their agendas,” Ladapo said. “This idea that people don’t get to make their own decisions on issues of health is wrong and it’s not something that we’re going to be about.”
Ladapo responded that too much emphasis was being placed on Florida’s promotion of vaccines.
“The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn’t the only path for that,” Ladapo said. “It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless.”
He said the state should be supporting many measures for good health: “vaccination, losing weight, exercising more [and] eating more fruits and vegetables.”
DeSantis said the state was getting a top-flight doctor who will tell the truth about the science behind the pandemic.
“Telling the truth is important, and I think that’s what Dr. Ladapo understands,” he stated. “You’ve got to tell people the truth, and you’ve got to let them make decisions.”
Top executive in state Department of Health
As the head of Florida’s Department of Health, Ladapo will be a key figure in the debate on whether children should wear masks in schools to prevent the spread of COVID-19 among students and staff.
The state’s ban on mask mandates, and all other mitigation efforts, have ostensibly relied upon the guidance of Rivkees and the department. But the state has recently blocked Rivkees from testifying in a lawsuit against the ban on mask mandates.
Thirteen of Florida’s 67 school districts are currently facing financial penalties if they don’t follow a department rule that says parents must have the ability to opt out their children from school mask mandates.
When asked Tuesday, Ladapo declined to answer what kind of mitigation efforts he would support for schools.
“Well, you know, I’m discussing that with my team in terms of recommendations. It’s complicated … we are discussing,” Ladapo said.
However, he said pulling children from school is a “perfect example of how glaringly we’ve ignored public health.”
Democratic lawmakers who serve on the Legislature’s public health committees criticized DeSantis’ choice.
“Florida’s surgeon general should be an expert in public health, but instead the governor has chosen someone who has questioned the safety of the COVID vaccines, has advocated against masks as a way to stop the spread of the virus, and who believes herd immunity through natural infection is the best possible way to end this pandemic,” Senator Janet Cruz, D. Tampa, issued a statement.
Joining UF faculty
Ladapo was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States at the age of 5. His father was a microbiologist. He’s married with three children, and he was recently granted a professorship at the University of Florida.
Ladapo said he is a “good friend” of Stanford University professor Jay Bhattacharya, who has become a go-to expert for DeSantis in public health matters. Bhattacharya — not Rivkees — was a witness for the state in a parent-led lawsuit against the governor’s mask mandate ban.
Bhattacharya was also one of the authors of the Great Barrington Declaration, a document drafted by three physicians who advocate for a policy that says that anyone who is not vulnerable “should immediately be allowed to resume life as normal.”
The document asserts that mask usage isn’t necessary, that lockdowns are counterproductive, and allowing young and healthy people to get infected should be expected as long as the vulnerable are protected.
Ladapo said he signed the declaration, although “there were a couple of things I didn’t agree with.”
Many of Ladapo’s essays echo the opinions of DeSantis, his new boss, who has questioned the efficacy of mandates, criticized leaders who implement lockdowns and championed various coronavirus treatments.
Ladapo’s writings do all of the above, but in one Wall Street Journal piece from June, Ladapo and a co-author took a strong stance against vaccines.
“The risks of a COVID-19 vaccine may outweigh the benefits for certain low-risk populations, such as children, young adults and people who have recovered from COVID-19,” The column states.
Ladapo and his coauthor used incidents from the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System to reach this conclusion. This system, as the column noted in its entirety, is not designed to determine if a reaction was caused or not by a vaccine.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not appear to agree with Ladapo’s conclusion.
“These vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history,” the government agency’s website reads. “This monitoring includes using both established and new safety monitoring systems to make sure that COVID-19 vaccines are safe.”
Ladapo’s hiring now means three major Florida health agencies will be led by Black officials. Shevaun Harir is the head of the Department of Children and Families. Simone Marstiller leads the Agency for Health Care Administration.
Ladapo still faces confirmation by Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate.
This report was contributed by Mary Ellen Klas, Miami Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief, and Allison Ross, Tampa Bay Times staff writer.
This story was originally published September 21, 2021 2:33 PM.