Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis’ controversial decision to appoint as his surgeon general a doctor who previously likened Covid-19 vaccination efforts to a misguided “religion” is emerging as a potentially powerful weapon for his Covid denialism.
DeSantis has tried to walk a careful line on the vaccine — acknowledging its safety, while also over-emphasizing monoclonal antibodies as an alternative and standing beside vaccine skeptics. But now the leading public health spokesperson in his government, Joseph Ladapo, is outright questioning vaccines and spreading disinformation about them.
This makes Ladapo a precious political asset for DeSantis: Rather than using his medical expertise to act as a check on DeSantis’ recklessly lax Covid policies, Ladapo is strengthening DeSantis’ position by staking out positions even too extreme for DeSantis to take, while providing them with a veneer of scientific expertise.
During a news conference Thursday, Ladapo made a number of shocking claims out of line with leading public health guidance and scientific claims about the vaccine. Standing with DeSantis by his side, he lambasted workplace mandates by openly questioning the idea that vaccines could be trusted and that the scientific community's claims about them were credible. Some of his remarks are worth quoting at length:
I mean, you hear these stories, people telling you what’s been happening in their lives — nurses, pregnant women who are being forced to sort of put something in their bodies that we don’t know all there is to know about yet. No matter what people on TV tell you, it’s not true. We’re going to learn more about the safety of these vaccines, right?
You remember when people were telling you that, you know, that these vaccines would stop transmission and the rates of protection were greater than 90 percent? Well, guess what? Here we are about 10 months afterward. And we’re finding that the data are showing that in some of these vaccines, the protection from infection is less than 40 percent. And even less than that, for some of them.
So this idea that we are foolish for not believing people who are telling us things that we don’t have data for right now is ridiculous, and people need to continue and stick with their intuition and their sensibilities.
There’s a lot to unpack about these irresponsible remarks. It’s true that of course we have not exhausted our knowledge of vaccine safety, much the way we haven’t exhausted our knowledge of the safety or health implications of nearly any food or medicine or any other kind of substance we put in our body.
But that reality isn’t grounds for abject skepticism of Covid-19 vaccines, which are being studied and improved upon by leading scientists around the world and are the subject of constant, rigorous scrutiny. Instead, we have to draw from that data and make cost-benefit calculations — not only about the vaccine itself, but about how risky the vaccine is versus the disease that it fights. By any reasonable measure, the vaccine is extraordinarily safe and much, much safer than contracting Covid.
Ladapo cited neither a study nor a credible body of researchers who are worried about vaccine safety. Instead, he raised the idea of “stories” you hear, suggesting the public give extra weight to anecdotes and conspiracy theories while shunning authorities “on TV.”
Instead of providing guidance on how people can keep up with the latest research or understand the debate about vaccines, Ladapo encouraged Floridians to exercise their “intuition and their sensibilities.” This sort of talk is an affront to the very notion of being a public health official.
Ladapo was also spreading disinformation in his statements implying that the medical establishment never believed that transmission after vaccination was possible. This is plainly untrue.
It's unclear exactly what Ladapo's 40 percent figure is referring to, but it seems to be a criticism that some of the vaccines, most notably Johnson & Johnson's, have declined in efficacy over time. Not only was this expected, but it also doesn't constitute a counterargument to getting one.
As Kavita Patel, a primary care physician and MSNBC contributor told me, even with declining efficacy against infection, the vaccines still provide people with memory cell immunity, which protects against severe cases of the disease and reduces likelihood of hospitalization and death.
Patel also emphasized that this is basic medical knowledge that Ladapo, a Harvard Medical School-trained doctor, certainly should know.
Ladapo seems to be playing a role for DeSantis often reserved for a vice president or a deputy official: a pit bull who can go on attack and absorb criticism the top figurehead cannot risk taking. DeSantis surely hoped for this when he hired him, knowing Ladapo had made a splash with his zealous public skepticism of mask-wearing and vaccine efficacy.
It raises questions of whether Ladapo is hoping to enter politics himself one day, or if he’s rehearsing for an even more prominent surgeon general position in the future. There’s also the possibility that, despite all his training, he’s a true believer in all the things he says. Perhaps that’s even more disconcerting.