Florida Democrats walk out of confirmation hearing for DeSantis' surgeon general pick

Bob Self/The Florida Times-Union via AP
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Senate Democrats in Florida on Wednesday walked out of a confirmation hearing in protest over controversial surgeon general nominee Joseph A. Ladapo, saying that they weren’t receiving answers from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick to be the state’s top health official.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Democrats raised issues with Ladapo’s qualifications and criticized him for maintaining DeSantis’ hands-off approach to the pandemic. They also groused that Ladapo was “smug” in answering their questions when he began his responses with nervous laughter or smiles.

“We don’t feel we are getting answers, and we feel there is a long agenda in this committee, so the Florida Democrats are going to walk out and abstain,” state Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) said.

The Republican-led committee advanced Ladapo’s nomination after the hour-plus hearing. He has one more committee stop before the full Senate will vote on his nomination. Ladapo, who has medical and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and has held professorships at New York University, UCLA and University of Florida, is expected to be confirmed easily.

DeSantis tapped Ladapo in September, and in that short time, he has inflamed Democrats for essentially being the public face of DeSantis’ pandemic response. Book also brought up an incident from October when Ladapo refused to don a facemask during an office visit with Sen. Tina Polsky (D-Boca Raton) after she had announced that she was battling cancer.

“I have sympathy for her and other people diagnosed with serious conditions, and I think it’s important to recognize that,” Ladapo said of Polsky. “And despite the politics of our environment, it’s a human thing.”

In response, a frustrated Book told Ladapo: “That’s a lot of words, and I was asking him if he regrets how he treated her.”

Ladapo’s resume and a review of hundreds of articles he authored show he has devoted most of his medical career to cardiovascular health, particularly among minority and low-income populations. His area of focus took a sharp turn toward treating Covid-19 shortly after the pandemic began in early 2020.

He penned at least a dozen op-eds published by the Wall Street Journal on the ineffectiveness of lockdowns and quarantines as well as pieces arguing that the vaccine is not a silver bullet. He’s also authored research papers that extolled the virtues of controversial medications that were thought to be effective at treating the virus, such as invectamin, but ended up being harmful. Ladapo is also one of thousands of signatories to the Great Barrington Declaration, which states the only way to end the pandemic is through herd immunity.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis showered the state surgeon general with praise during an early morning campaign press conference on Wednesday.

“I think Ladapo is a superstar,” said DeSantis, who contended that many of his observations about how to respond to Covid-19 had been proven true.

“Almost everything that he said has ended up becoming true,” DeSantis said. “It was not popular in certain circles at the time for sure. Do you want someone that is just going to go along with the crowd or do you want someone that’s actually going to look at the data firsthand?”

DeSantis also called his hiring a “real coup for us” and said when he first looked at Ladapo’s credentials, he was doubtful that he would leave UCLA for a job in Florida.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Book asked Ladapo five times “yes or no” whether the Covid-19 vaccine is effective at fighting Covid-19. Ladapo responded with a lengthy explanation that there is evidence showing the vaccine is effective at reducing the effects of Covid-19, and it has some value for controlling spread.

“Just a yes or no — do vaccines work against fighting Covid-19?” Book asked.

Ladapo responded by arguing that he’s “married to data and the data indicate the most commonly used vaccines have reasonable effectiveness in the prevention of hospitalization and death.”

State Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) also asked Ladapo questions about how he plans to address Hepatitis A in Florida, an attempt to check Ladapo’s qualifications. Ladapo struggled to answer Cruz’s questions, and he fired back by pointing to his degree in public health from Harvard University.

Sen. Shevrin Jones (D-West Park) asked how Florida’s Department of Health has performed during the pandemic. Ladapo said the state has led the nation in ways to control spread.

“The question that I’m asking is that we haven’t led the country,” Jones said. “You’re under oath, and I don’t want you to be misleading people.”

Gary Fineout contributed to this report.

CORRECTION: This report has been updated to correct a misattributed quote.

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