By Jeffrey Schweers, Capital Bureau | USA TODAY NETWORK – FLORIDA, Oct 22, 2021.
If Florida’s previous surgeon general’s social media presence was muted, Dr. Joseph Ladapo has been equipped with a megaphone.
Less than a month into the job, Ladapo has made a splash on Twitter and established himself as a regular presence by the Governor’s side at news conferences, lending his medical pedigree to the governor’s agenda.
He’s been using his newly minted Twitter account — @FLSurgeonGen — to promote the public health policies of his boss, Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis. But he’s also used it to go after Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a frequent critic of the governor and potential opponent of his in the 2022 governor’s race.
His public presence also stands in direct contrast to that of his predecessor, Dr. Scott Rivkees, whose public appearances were curtailed after saying publicly in April 2020 that Floridians would need to stay masked until a COVID-19 vaccine was available.
His presence was particularly notable at Thursday’s rally in Clearwater where the governor called for a special session to protect workers from federal vaccine mandate and give parents more power to fight school districts demanding their kids wear masks.
And despite his administration’s insistence that DeSantis still supported vaccination, Ladapo blasted the efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccines.
He pushed for natural immunity and accused the overwhelming majority of the public health community of scientific dishonesty, as well as criticized the Biden administration’s policies and the guidelines of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“What we are talking about here today is really an example of just extreme policies that we’ve seen during this pandemic, and policies that have been implemented without thinking about whether they make sense or thinking about their risks and benefits and what the implications of those policies are,” Ladapo said.
Comments like those and his unprecedented Twitter attacks on Fried, the governor’s potential opponent in 2022 have effectively weaponized the surgeon general, said Ron Filipkowski, a Sarasota lawyer and former longtime Republican.
“This is right out of the Trump playbook,” said Filipkowski, who quit the 12th Circuit Judicial Nominating Commission Desantis had appointed him to in protest over the firing and arrest of former Department of Health analyst Rebekah Jones.
Filipkowski drew this comparison: Former President Donald Trump plucked Dr. Scott Atlas out of Stanford University to serve as his health advisor during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, after he sidelined Dr. Anthony Fauci.
Ladapo is DeSantis’s Atlas, Filipkowski said.
DeSantis intentionally picked someone aligned with his own views on COVID-19 and who was already politically active and outspoken. He found that person in Ladapo — a relatively young, untried research professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California Los Angeles.
“He knew his views were contrary, that he was a political doctor prepared to go against the CDC,” Filipkowski said.
But Ladapo’s supporters said he is well qualified for the post, with a medical degree and a Ph.D from Harvard in 2008 and over 100 published scholarly articles. He spent time as a faculty member at NYU’s School of Medicine, and was a staff fellow with the Food and Drug Administration 2012-14 under President Obama. He was hired at UCLA in 2016 and became a tenured professor in 2020.
“Dr. Ladapo is a critical and independent thinker. He does not take dogma at face value,” Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor of public health at the Kech School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, said in an email to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida.
The two have spent the last two years working together on policy activities related to COVID-19, Klausner said, and believes Ladapo to be open-minded, incorruptible, a fast learner who loves to read, and “an ideal selection” as Florida’s surgeon general.
Twitter attacks on Nikki Fried
When Fried blasted the Department of Health after announcing last Thursday it would more than double the fees for Black farmers seeking medical marijuana licenses as discriminatory, Ladapo fired back on Twitter:
“ @NikkiFriedFL is making ridiculous claims again. Did she mention she’s a former marijuana lobbyist?”
And a week earlier, Ladapo criticized the methodology Fried’s staff used in a study of COVID data trends in public schools:
“Hi @NikkiFriedFL! Correlation is not causation. Who on your team conducted this epidemiological study? The methods you used are weak.
He went on: “Your team’s analysis doesn’t account for important factors beyond masks, such as testing frequency, community spread, etc. Did all these schools collect data in the same way, define cases in the same way, and mitigate spread the same way?”
The politicization of public health
Being the state’s top health officer and head of the Department of Health who serves at the pleasure of the governor has always had a political element to it, former health officials say. But Ladapo’s partisan comments illustrate how polarized the public health debate over the COVID-19 pandemic has become on both a state and national level.
Asked to comment on his comments, and whether Ladapo actually wrote them himself, DOH spokeswoman Weesam Khoury criticized the USA TODAY Network for focusing on his social media channel.
“First of all, it is unfortunate that public health has been so politicized, that you are hyperfocusing on the social media channel the Surgeon General uses to engage with Floridians on the important work of the Department,” Khoury said, adding that he is “directly involved in his social presence.”
Social media platforms are a way for Florida officials to engage directly with the public “and clarify misinformation — regardless of who perpetuates those narratives,” she added.
Florida law says very little about the surgeon general’s qualifications and responsibilities, other than that the person must be a licensed physician with “extensive experience in public health administration.”
As originally approved by the Legislature in 2007, the position served as “the leading voice on wellness and disease-prevention efforts, including the promotion of healthful lifestyles, immunization practices, health literacy, and the assessment and promotion of the physician and health care workforce in order to meet the health care needs of the state.”
That language was stripped from statutes during a 2012 reorganization, but as state health officer, Ladapo oversees a department responsible for all those things. And he’s gone beyond merely being a supporter of DeSantis’s own controversial policies that buck the mainstream consensus, according to Filipkowski.
“When I saw him using Nikki Fried’s name, I asked myself, ‘What is this?’ He’s not the governor’s chief of staff. He was hired to give medical advice,” Filipkowski said. “How much time will he spend campaigning?”
He expects Ladapo was chosen because of the prominent role COVID will play in the 2022 election: “COVID is clearly the No. 1 issue in the governor’s race and he’s bringing in a political surgeon general.”
‘Coronavirus does not care what your politics are’
Ladapo, who was simultaneously hired as an associate professor at the University of Florida College of Medicine, came to Florida “with specific views on COVID-related safety measures, many of which were not in line with the vast majority of physicians,” said Dr. Nina Shapiro, a professor at the UCLA School of Medicine.
“As I’ve said before, the coronavirus does not care what your politics are. You will get just as sick if Republican, Democrat, independent or other,” Shapiro told the USA TODAY NETWORK – Florida.
Promoting those views will only serve to bolster people who believe mask mandates and vaccinations are unnecessary, she said.
Having someone in as high a position as Ladapo “with such strong political views on minimizing the severity of this monstrous disease may be in the best interest of politicians, but is not in the best interest when it comes to the health of Florida’s constituents,” she said.
Ladapo’s views were well known and well publicized long before his appointment as surgeon general. He had written more than a dozen pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic since the start of the pandemic. At the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic in March 2020, Ladapo penned a column for USA TODAY opposing shutdowns and other remedies being proposed at the time.
A widely viewed video from last summer shows Ladapo and other physicians standing on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court wearing lab coats and espousing hydroxychloroquine as a cure for COVID-19. YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter took down the video for promoting false and dubious claims about the pandemic after it had received more than 14 million views on Facebook alone.
A group of experts determined the doctors for the most part were not actually directly in contact with people who had contracted the coronavirus.
And he signed the Great Barrington Declaration, which promoted herd immunity and raised concerns about the prevailing COVID-19 policies.
He’s argued that the potential risks of COVID-19 vaccines outweigh the benefits, especially among children and people who have recovered from the virus.
He’s said vaccine mandates can’t stop the spread of COVID-19, a point DeSantis has frequently made himself.
‘Individuals have every right to choose how to best protect themselves’
On his second day in office, Ladapo signed an emergency order reaffirming the governor’s position on masks in schools, that it is strictly up to parents to decide if their children should wear them. The order also took away the authority of school districts to quarantine students exposed to COVID, leaving that decision also up to parents.
He also appeared alongside DeSantis promoting monoclonal antibody treatment in the early stages of COVID infection, and supporting DeSantis’s decision to fine Leon County $3.57 million for its firing of 14 workers who refused to get vaccinated.
“Firing hard working employees over vaccine passports has lasting consequences & can impact the health of Floridians,” Ladapo tweeted last week. “Individuals have every right to choose how to best protect themselves & their families.”
Ladapo’s supporters at DOH and in the governor’s office have said he is not anti-vaccine, as his detractors have suggested. But if there was any doubt about his position, he made himself clear Thursday when he stepped to the podium and unleashed a stream of anti-vaccine rhetoric.
“The idea that vaccine mandates are needed to create safe workplaces is a complete lie, and it’s continued to be repeated and you should know that it’s not at all backed up by science,” Ladapo said. “The science says the complete opposite, and that’s a fact.”
People aren’t comfortable getting vaccinated because there is a climate of scientific dishonesty about the science, Ladapo said, whether it is about the denial of natural immunity in the face of science or the safety of the vaccines.
Dr. Leo Nissola, a immunologist and immunotherapy scientist who also helped evaluate and design COVID-19 epidemiological models featured in White House press briefings, said it was “absurd to see public leaders not following CDC guidelines and science.”
Nissola said training is needed for public leaders like Ladapo “who still do not understand the science.”
It “adds another layer of confusion and mistrust amongst the general population,” he said.
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.