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Ron DeSantis hits a new low with his Covid-denialist surgeon general

New appointee Joseph Ladapo has called vaccination efforts a misguided "religion."
Image: Ron DeSantis
Paul Hennessy / Getty Images; MSNBC

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has long been at the forefront of the Republican Party's Covid-19 denialism, opposing mask mandates and social distancing and condoning the spread of vaccine misinformation — all while boasting about it on Fox News as a victory for freedom. He’s now breaking frightening new ground by appointing a surgeon general who has likened vaccination efforts to a misguided “religion” and believes the dangers of Covid are widely exaggerated.

DeSantis’ appointment of Joseph Ladapo is troubling on two levels. It means the state’s top public health official will be disseminating health advice out of line with leading public health guidance across the country and downplaying the state’s extraordinary Covid crisis. It will also give more expert heft to DeSantis’ extreme policy choices as he continually denies the dangers of Covid in his state despite jaw-dropping hospitalization rates and casualties in recent months.

DeSantis never had a particularly close relationship with his previous surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, who had been in his post since 2019 and stepped down this week after an employment agreement expired. In April 2020, he was whisked off stage at a news conference after saying that mask-wearing and social distancing could be expected for up to a year. After that conference, he rarely made public appearances. And an exposé by the Tampa Bay Times based on schedules and email correspondence found that during the first six months of 2021, DeSantis did not meet one-on-one with Rivkees, but he appeared dozens of times on Fox News.

DeSantis' new surgeon general, Ladapo, has elite institutional affiliations: He received his medical degree from Harvard University and was most recently a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. But it appears UCLA's website has recently scrubbed his profile, and according to an archived version of it, his research specialties were cardiovascular health and the cost-effectiveness of diagnostic technologies — which is to say, he doesn't appear to be an expert in the science he routinely contests.

In a foreboding moment, Ladapo said, “Florida will completely reject fear."

Ladapos' Covid-related views are out of line with many of the medical experts who populate his previous institutional homes, as well as mainstream scientific thinking about threats of Covid and how to mitigate them, like the efficacy of masks. And it appears he deploys his fringe views to support lax policies to guard against Covid.

During a news conference marking his new position Tuesday, Ladapo said of vaccines, “There is nothing special about them compared to any other preventive measure.” This is despite the fact that medical experts and public health officials around the world have described the vaccine as the best defense against Covid. He also suggested that getting one should be a personal decision.

“It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless,” he said of the vaccines. “We support measures to good health. That’s vaccination, losing weight, exercising more, eating more fruits and vegetables, everything.”

In a foreboding moment, Ladapo said, “Florida will completely reject fear.” While it is a common and sensible practice for government officials to call for calm in moments of crisis, the problem is that Ladapo’s track record suggests he thinks people are overreacting to a problem that his state is in fact under-reacting to.

Ladapo is a signatory of the controversial 2020 Great Barrington Declaration, a statement published on a website sponsored by a libertarian think tank and signed by scientists calling for non-high-risk people to resume normal life during the pandemic and to let herd immunity protect the public. (Some of the names on the list were fake, and almost all were later made private.) This theory of resolving the pandemic was a fringe view: Most scientists and public health experts pointed out that this approach would be unprecedented, lacked scientific backing, ethically problematic and that there was no plausible way to prevent transmission to high-risk people.

The Orlando Sentinel has a good rundown of Ladapo's skepticism of or advocacy against many of the standard public health protocols adopted around the world to mitigate the virus:

In a June Wall Street Journal piece headlined, “Are Covid Vaccines Riskier Than Advertised?”, Ladapo wrote, “Some scientists have raised concerns that the safety risks of Covid-19 vaccines have been underestimated.” He argued that COVID vaccines could be attributable to a spike in deaths in some countries such as Norway and decried “Anti-Trump politics in the spring of 2020 [that] mushroomed into social-media censorship.”

He wrote another Wall Street Journal op-ed last week entitled, “Vaccine Mandates Can’t Stop Covid’s Spread.” He argued that because many carriers are asymptomatic, “It isn’t practical to punish adults who have no symptoms. … Doctors and public health officials used to understand that stopping spread is usually not practical.”

In an April Wall Street Journal op-ed entitled, “An American Epidemic of ‘Covid Mania’,” Ladapo argued the U.S. response to COVID, which has now killed 676,000 in the U.S. including nearly 52,000 in Florida, was an “overreaction” and the disease “never posed a serious threat to social and economic institutions.”

DeSantis will be able to use Ladapo as a weapon as he proceeds with his war on Covid restrictions, which have included punishing school districts that have defied his attempts at banning mask mandates in schools and barring companies from requiring employee vaccines. With Ladapo’s elite credentials, DeSantis can claim his denialism has the imprimatur of an elite doctor, and he likely can feature Ladapo far more regularly in news conferences than his predecessor without worrying about being contradicted.

DeSantis seems to be taking Florida even further down a path of Covid chaos. One hopes other Republican governors don’t try to follow his lead.