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UCLA sources: DeSantis's handpicked surgeon general mischaracterized his experience treating Covid-19 patients

Ladapo’s opinion pieces on Covid-19 became a 'source of embarrassment' for UCLA said one of the sources consulted


Several former colleagues of Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Florida’s new surgeon general, say he misled the public about his experience treating Covid-19 patients. The four former colleagues worked with Ladapo at UCLA, where for several years he was an associate professor in the division of General Internal Medicine and Health Services Research, before being tapped as Florida’s top public health official.

While at UCLA, Ladapo wrote multiple opinion pieces in the early months of the pandemic arguing against lockdowns and mask usage in the United States. In two of those articles, written between March and April of 2020, he specifically claimed to have treated Covid-19 patients. On March 24, 2020, for example, he wrote an opinion piece for USA Today making an argument against lockdowns based on his own experience “taking care of patients with COVID-19 at UCLA’s flagship hospital” the previous week. Sixteen days later, on April 9, 2020, he wrote an almost identical piece for The Wall Street Journal where he also talked about his experience “caring for patients with suspected or diagnosed Covid-19 infections at UCLA.”

Dr. Ladapo’s characterization of his work is contradicted by the sources who worked at the same UCLA flagship hospital. They spoke to MSNBC on the condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak on the record, but their credentials were independently verified. These sources, all of whom had experience treating Covid-19 patients, say that Ladapo’s numerous op-eds greatly mischaracterized the type of work he was doing during the pandemic. In addition, they do not believe Ladapo treated Covid-19 patients at UCLA until after July 2020 or even later.

“I was part of the team that was taking care of Covid-19 patients in the beginning of the pandemic and Dr. Ladapo was not part of that team. There were two separate groups, General Medicine and ICU, plus a volunteer program to take care of Covid-19 patients. Ladapo was not part of either,” said one of the sources who was part of UCLA’s Covid-19 task force. “It was a small group of people, a task force. Everyone knew everyone. He was not there,” the person added.

In addition to that statement, MSNBC obtained scheduling documents from the time that Dr. Ladapo was working at UCLA. They show the schedules for dozens of doctors who were also working in the Internal Medicine Unit alongside him. These documents span a period from June 2019 to September 2021. While those documents show that numerous doctors were assigned to work in the “COVID” unit, at no point was Dr. Ladapo scheduled to treat Covid-19 patients during that time. “He was not assigned to Covid hospital shifts and he was not part of the task force, so unless he saw patients privately, I do not think he cared for patients with the virus here at UCLA,” said one of the sources familiar with the schedule.

MSNBC contacted UCLA seeking comments on this reporting. After multiple attempts via email and phone they only confirmed that Dr. Ladapo worked for them during the pandemic. When pressed for more details, UCLA replied that “they don’t have additional information to share.” MSNBC also reached out to the Florida Department of Health multiple times seeking comment from Dr. Ladapo with no response.

Another one of Dr. Ladapo’s public actions has raised scrutiny.

In July 2020, a group of doctors wearing white embroidered lab coats stood on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. They called themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” a name that suggests that they were either working in hospital emergency rooms or had experience treating Covid-19 patients. During the press conference, the doctors downplayed the risks associated with the virus and pushed hydroxychloroquine as a cure, a statement that directly contradicts medical findings about the efficacy of the drug against Covid. “I put them on hydroxychloroquine, I put them on zinc, I put them on Zitromax and they are all well,” said Stella Immanuel, one of the doctors at the press conference that day. Behind her stood Dr. Joseph Ladapo.

The sources consulted by MSNBC said that Ladapo’s participation in that press conference ignited deep conversations inside UCLA about the credibility of his work and how his actions were affecting the reputation of the academic institution. “In academic medicine we are tasked with putting opinions out there that are fully sustained. His opinion was not,” said one of the sources consulted.

The medical professionals who spoke with MSNBC also indicated that inside the hospital Ladapo’s opinion pieces became a “source of embarrassment,” especially those written for The Wall Street Journal, one of the largest papers in the United States. According to one of the sources, UCLA asked the WSJ to add a disclaimer next to Ladapo’s pieces clarifying that his views were his own, to no avail. When contacted by MSNBC, the paper said, "The op-eds were published under Dr. Ladapo's byline because they are his views." UCLA did not respond to our request for comment.

“A lot of people here at UCLA are glad that he is gone because we were embarrassed by his opinions and behavior. At the same time, we don’t wish this on the people of Florida. They don’t deserve to have someone like him making their health decisions,” said one of the UCLA sources. Dr. Ladapo was handpicked by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in September to be the state’s surgeon general. His confirmation hearing is due early next year, but the process might encounter some pushback. A group of more than 350 doctors sent a letter to the Florida State Senate asking them to scrutinize Ladapo’s nomination amid professional concerns.

Since taking the job as Florida’s surgeon general, Ladapo has made headlines for his stance on school mask mandates and more recently for his refusal to wear a mask while meeting with a state senator who was later revealed to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. “As a physician, I’m honestly concerned that Dr. Ladapo’s actions around the pandemic thus far have been not just unhelpful, but dangerous,” said Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist who signed the letter voicing his concern with Ladapo’s nomination.

This was not always the case.

Ladapo, who graduated from Harvard Medical School in 2008 and has a PhD in health policy, was well respected by his UCLA peers when he first joined the academic institution in 2016. “I found him to be bright, with a rich educational background. Always nudging people to make better decisions for themselves,” said one of the sources. “Everybody is just surprised. He was smart, respected and even admired,” said another.

Some of his former colleagues genuinely think Dr. Ladapo does not believe behind closed doors what he is willing to say in public. “He knows his statements [regarding Covid-19] are not accurate; he knows better.” The shock has led them to speculate whether Ladapo was willing to sacrifice his medical reputation over career ambition. “He has become a right-wing media darling. He might like the attention,” one of the sources contacted by MSNBC said. “What hurts me the most is that those in Florida that hired him cite his work at UCLA as a point of admiration… but he is everything this hospital and this institution is not,” said another.

Florida’s Department of Health has not responded to MSNBC’s emails for comments.