Former Florida surgeon general disputes state’s vaccine, transgender guidance

Gov. Ron DeSantis says the guidance coming from Joseph Ladapo is sound.
Then-Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees speaks during a February news conference regarding the coronavirus. Rivkees stepped down from his post as surgeon general and was replaced by Joseph Ladapo.
Then-Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees speaks during a February news conference regarding the coronavirus. Rivkees stepped down from his post as surgeon general and was replaced by Joseph Ladapo.
Published April 28, 2022|Updated April 28, 2022

TALLAHASSEE — Scott Rivkees, the first Florida surgeon general appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis, does not seem to agree with recent guidance from the department he once ran.

The Department of Health, which is now run by Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, issued guidance in March discussing the potential dangers of giving healthy children COVID-19 vaccines. This month, the Department of Health put out a statement advising against social transition or gender affirming surgery for transgender children.

Related: Former Florida surgeon general heading to Brown University

Rivkees — who has since left the state to take a job at Brown University — publicly disputed both of those stances recently.

In a March column in Time titled “Setting the Record Straight about COVID-19 Vaccines for Children,” Rivkees wrote that healthy children should get vaccinated.

“Some people suggest that severe COVID-19, which mean cases needing hospitalization or resulting in death, only affects children who have underlying medical conditions,” said Rivkees, a board-certified doctor of general pediatrics. “This is wrong.”

Rivkees didn’t mention his former department in that opinion piece. Instead, he laid out a series of facts and figures to make the case that vaccination is safe, effective and far less risky for children than contracting the virus.

Drawing intense criticism, Florida warned in its guidance that children who take the vaccine could contract serious conditions such as myocarditis, which is the inflammation of the heart muscle. At least four of the researchers whose work the department cited in its guidance said the their words were taken out of context. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends COVID-19 vaccines for eligible children 5 years of age or older.

Rivkees said in his essay that the risk of a child contracting myocarditis after getting infected with COVID-19 is 25 times higher than the risk of contracting myocarditis after getting a COVID-19 vaccine.

This week, Rivkees signed onto a letter published in the Tampa Bay Times that offered more direct criticism of the department he used to run.

The state recommended last week that transgender children shouldn’t receive certain medical interventions often given to help people with gender dysphoria. It said kids should not get hormone therapy, gender affirming surgery — nor should they undergo “social gender transition,” in which a child assumes a new social identity, its guidance said. Such a transition may be marked by a change in name, pronouns or clothing.

The letter signed onto by Rivkees and some 300 other medical professionals argued the guidance “misrepresents the weight of the evidence, does not allow for personalized patient and family-centered care, and would, if followed, lead to higher rates of youth depression and suicidality.”

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The Department of Health was again accused of cherry-picking evidence from sources in order to substantiate its claims. For example, the Department of Health said its guidance is in line with the recommendations given by Sweden, Finland, the United Kingdom and France.

“In fact, none of these countries recommends against social gender transition,” the letter responded.

The document noted that the state’s guidance goes against the advice of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokesperson, said the guidance is sound.

“Governor DeSantis agrees with the guidance issued by the Florida Department of Health on child COVID vaccination and gender dysphoria in children, because that guidance is supported by the best available evidence,” Pushaw wrote in an email. “Dr. Rivkees, like any other citizen, is entitled to his own opinions and free to express them.”

As surgeon general, Rivkees oversaw the health department during some of the worst months of the coronavirus pandemic in Florida. However, he was hardly the public facing figure that Ladapo has turned out to be. Whereas the current surgeon general makes frequent appearances with DeSantis and on conservative cable news programs, Rivkees was largely sidelined as Florida’s top health official.

The turning point in Rivkees’ tenure appeared to have been an April 2020 news conference during which Rivkees cautioned that Floridians could be forced to social distance and wear masks until vaccines were made widely available.

After he made that comment, a DeSantis aide removed Rivkees from the news conference. The surgeon general was hardly seen again until the state rolled out its COVID-19 vaccination program in January 2021. He left the department in September.

Rivkees did not respond to emails seeking comment Thursday.