Controversy over surgeon general continues at confirmation hearing. Democrats walk out

Jose A Iglesias/jiglesias@elnuevoherald.com
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A panel of Florida senators on Wednesday advanced the confirmation of Joseph Ladapo, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick to be Florida’s surgeon general.

After grilling Ladapo for an hour on COVID-19 vaccines, his résumé and other Department of Health initiatives, Democrats refused to participate in the vote.

“We don’t feel that we’re getting any answers,” Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, said just before senators were set to begin debate over the confirmation. “The Florida Senate Democrats in this committee now are going to abstain, walk out and come back when we have more business.”

The Republicans on the committee then quickly advanced Ladapo’s nomination. Democrats are in the minority on the committee, and their votes would not have changed the outcome.

Ladapo’s candidacy to be the state’s top doctor and the leader of the Department of Health will next be heard by another Senate committee. The full Senate will then take up his confirmation.

At a brief question-and-answer session with reporters after the meeting, Ladapo said the Democrats’ gesture was “unfortunate.”

“I certainly wish them well. I have no ill will towards them and I hope we can work together on issues of public health relevance to Floridians,” Ladapo said.

Democrats ask about Polsky meeting, vaccines

Democrats were particularly unsatisfied with Ladapo’s answers in response to questions about vaccines and masks — and about the surgeon general’s treatment of Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

In an October meeting with Polsky, who was undergoing treatment for breast cancer, Ladapo refused to don a mask in the senator’s office. Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, admonished Ladapo in a letter, calling his behavior “unprofessional.”

Allies of the governor have noted that Polsky appeared maskless in public prior to her meeting with Ladapo in a spacious public meeting room. DeSantis at the time called Polsky’s complaint “manufactured.”

After her flap with Ladapo made national news, an anonymous caller sent a death threat to Polsky’s district office.

On Wednesday, Book asked whether Ladapo regretted the way he had treated Polsky. Three times, Ladapo declined to directly answer. However, he said it’s “very important to respect people’s preferences.”

Are COVID-19 vaccines effective?

Book asked Ladapo five times whether vaccines are effective in stopping COVID-19, and gave the Harvard-educated doctor the option of answering “yes” or “no.”

Ladapo declined to answer that way. Instead, he said at various times that vaccines offer “reasonable effectiveness” and “relatively high effectiveness” against hospitalization and death. The vaccines offer “relatively low effectiveness for prevention” against transmission over time, Ladapo said.

The omicron wave has resulted in an uptick in cases among people who are vaccinated across the country. However, in December, COVID-19-associated hospitalizations were 49 times higher among unvaccinated seniors than they were among seniors who had received vaccines and a booster shot, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

After the meeting, Ladapo said he felt he had accurately answered senators’ questions.

Sen. Aaron Bean, one of the Republicans to advance Ladapo’s nomination, said he understood where some of the frustration from his Democratic colleagues was coming from.

“When you’re asked what time it is, tell us what time it is. And he told us how to build a clock today,” said Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, referring to Ladapo. “I think that led to the frustration. Is he the guy for the job? He is. Could he do a better job answering questions? He can.”

Democrats said they skipped debate over the nomination because they wanted to move on to more pressing business before the committee.

“Our constituents did send us here to ask the tough questions,” said Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami Gardens. “But what they did not send us here to do is to waste our time.”

A controversial tenure

After initially imposing restrictions on businesses and schools aimed at slowing down the pandemic, DeSantis has for more than a year eschewed policies aimed at curbing the spread of the virus. Last September, when DeSantis replaced Surgeon General Scott Rivkees with Ladapo, he found an outspoken top health official who echoed the governor’s thoughts on so-called “lock downs.”

Ladapo has been the subject of a series of controversies as surgeon general. The process by which he was hired to be a tenured professor at the University of Florida immediately drew questions from some of his colleagues at the university.

In November, the surgeon general pushed for new laws limiting workplace vaccine mandates backed by numerous professional medical associations. His Department of Health then crafted broad rules allowing workers to easily evade vaccine requirements.

And most recently, Ladapo criticized the Biden administration for its decision to stop sending federally owned doses of two monoclonal antibody treatments that laboratory studies have shown do not work against the omicron variant of the virus.

As of Wednesday, Florida, the third most populous state in the nation, had the 17th highest per capita COVID-19 death rate in the country — a rate about 14% higher than the national average, according to a New York Times analysis.

As of last week’s report from the state, 73% of Floridians ages 5 and up have received at least one dose of the coronavirus vaccine. Still, 31% of the state’s total population remains unvaccinated, including children 4 and under, who are not yet eligible to receive the vaccine.

Ladapo has assumed control of a Department of Health that has been on high alert for nearly two consecutive years. Along with the coronavirus pandemic, the department has been charged with improving the state’s racial health disparities, combating a runaway epidemic of opioid overdose deaths and fighting the remnants of an outbreak of Hepatitis A.

DeSantis was asked about Ladapo’s confirmation during a campaign event Wednesday morning.

”Dr. Ladapo is a superstar,” he said. “I told him, when you go in here, you are challenging sacred cows, of the corporate press, of some of the establishment people who have been wrong on a lot of stuff. And they’re going to fire at you. And he’s like, ‘You know what? That’s all good.’ ”

Herald/Times staff writer Lawrence Mower contributed to this report.

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