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Florida's new surgeon general opposes mandates, calls COVID-19 vaccines "nothing special"

On Tuesday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that Dr. Joseph Ladapo will be the state's new surgeon general and secretary of the state's health department. 

"Joe has had a remarkable academic and medical career," DeSantis said at a news conference. "We feel that Joe is just the right guy for the job." 

But Ladapo quickly came under fire from critics for downplaying COVID-19 vaccines and for his association with the controversial group America's Frontline Doctors, which has promoted bogus "cures." 

At a press conference announcing his new role, Ladapo said he is going to advocate for a "public health" approach to handling the pandemic and other concerns, and said he will "completely reject fear as a way of making policies." 

"We are going to have a positive approach," he said. 

Ladapo graduated from Harvard Medical School and also has a Ph.D. in health policy from Harvard. He is a health policy researcher and physician at the University of California-Los Angeles David Geffen School of Medicine. 

"Public health is not about a single item. It's not about how many cases of COVID there are in a location — that is a part of public health but it's not the only thing," he said. "That's over. It's not going to happen here."

Florida has among the highest number of coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the U.S. Over the past 28 days, there have been nearly 425,000 confirmed cases in the state, according to Johns Hopkins University, and more than 9,100 deaths. Florida's COVID-19 hospitalizations reached a record high of over 16,000 in mid-August, according to the Florida Hospital Association, before declining to just under 8,500 this week, slightly below the peak number of hospitalizations in 2020. 

The state's health department reports 70% of eligible people in Florida are vaccinated against COVID-19. Governor DeSantis has been an outspoken opponent of vaccine mandates and has even sought to ban schools from requiring masks — a policy that is being fought in the courts.

When asked by reporters about the emphasis that will be placed on vaccination, Ladapo said he plans to treat the vaccines like "any other preventative issue."

"Vaccines are up to the person. There is nothing special about them compared to any other preventative measure," Ladapo said. 

"The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn't the only path to that. It's been treated almost like a religion and it's senseless," he said. "...We support measures for good health — vaccinations, losing weight, exercising, eating more fruits and vegetables, everything." 

But studies show how big a difference the COVID vaccines can make. Those who are unvaccinated are 11 times more likely to die from COVID-19 compared to those are vaccinated, according to recent data from the Centers from Disease Control and Prevention. Unvaccinated people are also about four and a half times more likely to get COVID and over 10 times more likely to be hospitalized. 

Ladapo has a public history of promoting unproven treatments for COVID-19, writing an op-ed in the New York Daily News in 2020 touting the drug hydroxychloroquine — which the World Health Organization has warned is not an effective prevention or treatment method for COVID-19. He also appeared with and praised America's Frontline Doctors, a group of pro-Trump health care workers that has spread misinformation about the pandemic.

Ladapo has also published several op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, including one in June questioning the safety of vaccines, and another just days ago entitled, "Vaccine mandates can't stop COVID's spread."

"I'm just really happy to be here in Florida working with Governor DeSantis and the leadership here in Florida to really think thoughtful and in a very positive way about our public health here in Florida," Lapado said Tuesday. "And frankly, hopefully set an example for other states around the country and maybe even further than that." 

The Democratic National Committee blasted DeSantis' choice of Ladapo, CBS Miami reported.

"Instead of going with a trusted advocate for science, DeSantis is once again playing games with peoples' lives by appointing someone who has trafficked anti-vaccine and anti-mask rhetoric," DNC spokeswoman Adonna Biel said in a statement. "The American people are ready to return to normalcy and the DeSantis playbook of prolonging the pandemic is dangerous and wreaking havoc on his own state."

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