Florida’s new surgeon general opposes mask, vaccine mandates

Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a researcher at UCLA who expressed skepticism of vaccines to end the pandemic, said Tuesday that he would “reject fear” as a public health strategy.
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a Harvard-educated researcher, was chosen by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become Florida's next surgeon general on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021.
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, a Harvard-educated researcher, was chosen by Gov. Ron DeSantis to become Florida's next surgeon general on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2021. [ LAWRENCE MOWER | Lawrence Mower ]
Published Sept. 21, 2021|Updated Sept. 22, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced a new surgeon general for Florida on Tuesday, a Harvard-trained doctor who advocated for an approach to the coronavirus pandemic that emphasizes protecting 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 replaces Dr. Scott Rivkees, a pediatrician whose last day was 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.

Since the start of the pandemic, Ladapo has penned op-eds in the Wall Street Journal challenging main assertions by national health experts.

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. That sentiment is similar to those made by DeSantis since the start of the pandemic.

“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.”

When asked whether Florida should be promoting vaccines, Ladapo replied that too much emphasis had been placed on that approach.

“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 said. “You’ve got to tell people the truth and you’ve got to let them make decisions.”

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.

Ladapo declined to say what type of mitigation efforts he would support in schools when asked on Tuesday.

“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,” said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, in a statement.

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.

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.

To come to that conclusion, Ladapo and his co-author cited incidents reported by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System, which, as the column noted, is not intended to evaluate whether a given reaction was caused 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. The Department of Children and Families is led by Shevaun Harris. The Agency for Health Care Administration is led by Simone Marstiller.

Ladapo still faces confirmation by Florida’s Republican-controlled Senate.

Times/Herald staff writer Mary Ellen Klas and Times staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.