Florida doctors worried DeSantis gives ‘fringe’ dermatologist a platform

Rebecca Blackwell/AP Photo
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — In 2021, Jon Ward wanted Florida’s largest medical association to take a stance against the Covid-19 vaccine.

The move by the Panama City dermatologist, also a well-known conservative activist, sent many members of the 25,000-person Florida Medical Association reeling, with one doctor likening it to a comedian telling an off-color joke. Instead, the members did the opposite of what he asked and crafted a resolution that was pro-vaccine.

“It was such an inflammatory resolution that we decided to flip it on its head,” said a second FMA member who attended the meeting. “We totally made it hostile to what he wanted.”

Now Ward is creating fresh controversy in the state’s medical community after appearing alongside Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis at several events, where Ward rejected Covid-19 vaccines and most pandemic-era mitigation efforts.

Ward’s views are aligned with DeSantis’ on Covid. The Florida governor has built a national reputation by rejecting Covid-19 mandates such as masking students and vaccinating children. DeSantis’ surgeon general, Joe Ladapo, has also come under fire from the medical community for questioning vaccine safety and warning men against taking the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

DeSantis is using his opposition to Covid-19 restrictions and advocacy of medical “free speech” as a central pillar of his messaging strategy, and the issue is likely to play into a possible 2024 presidential run. The Republican has turned to Ward on several occasions as a validator of his positions.

Ward doesn’t hold any official position within DeSantis’ administration and does not advise the governor in an official capacity. DeSantis in March, however, appointed Ward to the Northwest Florida State College District Board of Trustees – a non-medical position.

DeSantis during a March press conference introduced the doctor as “one of the engines behind” the movement to allow doctors to speak freely without being reprimanded by medical regulators for controversial views.

“Politics has always been in medicine, no question, but the pandemic really exacerbated those issues,” said Marianne Udow-Phillips, founding executive director of the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan and a lecturer at UM’s school of public health. “The profession is deeply examining the issue,” she said. “There is tremendous worry. There is no question the profession is rethinking the issue, and taking a closer look at how misinformation spreads.”

Some universities are starting to include communications as an element of medical school curriculum, an area public health hasn’t prioritized in the past.

“There is tremendous worry,” Udow-Phillips said. “There is no question the profession is rethinking the issue, and taking a closer look at how misinformation spreads.”

Ward’s emergence as a central figure in DeSantis’ Covid-19 events has given rise to concern among many in Florida’s medical community, some members of which think Ward is, at best, misguided and, at worst, a dangerous font of misinformation. In interviews with POLITICO, nine members of the association expressed concern that Ward had been given a statewide platform. Each was granted anonymity because the FMA has a policy of its members not criticizing other members publicly.

Members of the group are leery about angering DeSantis, whom the organization endorsed for reelection in 2022. But some doctors said privately they are worried the governor is elevating a “fringe” perspective in the medical community.

Ward — and other medical professionals who are skeptical of vaccines and other protections like masks — says he simply wants to express his views without fear of reprisal. He also does not claim to be an expert on public health, a criticism frequently raised by critics who are concerned the governor is amplifying the views of a dermatologist without training in pandemic response.

“I am an advocate for free speech among medical professionals in public policy debate and with patients,” Ward said in a statement to POLITICO. “That is the only topic the governor’s office has ever asked me for my opinion or thoughts. At no time has the governor, his staff, the Surgeon General, or his staff asked me about my thoughts on any of the issues related to Covid-19, masks, lockdowns, or the shots.”

“I happen to agree with them, as do tens of thousands of physicians across this state who just re-elected Governor DeSantis, but calling me his ‘medical expert of choice’ would be a gross inaccuracy,” he said.

In a statement, DeSantis’ press secretary Bryan Griffin defended featuring Ward at the Tuesday event.

“We do not operate by popular political consensus, but by evidence,” he said. “We thank Dr. Ward for lending his time and expertise to our press conference to ensure medical freedom is preserved in Florida.”

DeSantis most recently featured Ward at a press conference last week in Panama City where he again asked lawmakers to pass a proposal making it harder to punish doctors for controversial public statements. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation that makes spreading medical misinformation a type of “unprofessional conduct” – the opposite of what DeSantis wants.

“Governor DeSantis supports the strongest free speech protections for physicians in America,” Ward said at the event. “I will be honored to be among the freest doctors, who take care of the freest patients, in the freest state in America.”

In 2021, Ward, on social media, encouraged parents to “train” their children to lie about their vaccine status and “game the system” by telling school officials they have already had Covid-19 to avoid quarantine if they were exposed. School officials publicly blasted the comments, which Ward later said he felt “regret" for making. DeSantis has also featured quotes from Ward in official press releases, and last summer appointed him to the board of Northwest Florida State College.

Ward, though, is not without his supporters. After POLITICO reached out to him for comment, about a half dozen FMA members reached out to POLITICO via email to defend the dermatologist.

“I have the privilege of practicing in the same community with Dr. Ward, and have shared numerous patients with him,” said Thomas Johnson, a Panama City oncologist. “He is an outstanding dermatologist, and contrary to your uninformed opinion, he is highly valued in our community, and has a great deal of support within the FMA, which is growing with time.

“Jon has been a strong voice of caution in our community and the state against this unprecedented medical tyranny regarding these COVD 19 vaccines and treatment of COVID 19,” Johnson added.

Many FMA members, however, see the free speech argument as cover to allow medical professionals like Ward to amplify politically-laced Covid-19 misinformation — even if it’s seen as far outside mainstream medical consensus.

“It is truly unfortunate that the pandemic and the vaccine have caused such a divide not only among our political parties but also within medicine,” a third FMA member said. “It has been a trying couple of years practicing medicine during this unprecedented time.”