TALLAHASSEE – Days after Gov. Ron DeSantis opened his second term with a combative speech blasting federal COVID-19 policies as based “more on ideology and politics than on sound science,” Florida’s surgeon general was a guest on a podcast called Liberty Lockdown.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day to be unvaccinated? It feels so good,” host Clint Russell said before starting into his conversation with Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the state’s top doctor who also is a tenured faculty member at the University of Florida.
With DeSantis expected in coming months to formally launch his bid for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination, Ladapo is emerging as a central player in the governor’s outreach to vaccine skeptics and opponents who now form a stunningly large part of the GOP’s national voter base.
DeSantis is making his own appeals to this Republican core, which defies most medical advice on the virus, getting the Florida Supreme Court last month to open a statewide grand jury investigation into what he called “crimes and wrongdoing,” related to the COVID-19 vaccinations.
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Florida top doc a favorite of far right: Florida Surgeon General Ladapo appears on anti-vaccine podcast, promotes medical falsehoods
DeSantis kept up the drumbeat Jan.17, calling for the Republican-controlled Legislature to make permanent bans on school mask mandates along with government and employer vaccine requirements which had been enacted on a short-term basis in 2021.
Leaning into conspiracies
At a boisterous rally in Republican-leaning Bay County, DeSantis leaned into conspiracy theories, saying there was an effort by the medical establishment, President Joe Biden and the legacy media to “impose a bio-medical security state on society.”
But how such claims will play with Republican voters across the country is uncertain.
“I think there’s a lot of people who have concerns and they’re really tired of the mainstream doctors glossing that over and saying everything is OK. He’s speaking for a large group of people out there," said Evan Power, chair of the Leon County Republican Party.
Others are concerned about the Florida governor's stance.
“It’s really scary,” said Annette Meeks, a lifelong Republican who heads the Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, a conservative policy group. “We’ve just become the anti-science party in some states.”
Thirty-five percent of self-identified Republicans are unvaccinated, compared with only 6% of Democrats, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor. Anti-vaccine messaging has become part of DeSantis’ pitch as he gets ready to take the national stage.
“I have a great deal of respect for your governor,” Meeks added. “But along with the whole ‘freedom’ that he cares to espouse comes personal responsibility. That’s the other half of the conservative coin. But some people don’t take that part seriously.”
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In recent months, Ladapo has become a frequent public voice of the administration, appearing on hard-right podcasts airing dubious claims about the vaccines and condemning the federal government’s masking, closures and social distancing guidance that marked the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak that is now stretching into its fourth year.
“It’s so obvious to me, Dr. Fauci is a complete fraud when it comes to communication,” Ladapo told Liberty Lockdown listeners in a podcast aired Jan. 9, taking aim at the now-retired chief medical advisor to both former President Donald Trump and Biden during the pandemic.
“His goal is not communication. It’s manipulation,” Ladapo said.
Recent hard-right appearances
The Liberty Lockdown appearance was the doctor’s latest on podcasts which attract a sizable segment of conservative followers.
Weeks earlier, in a First Class Fatherhood podcast airing Nov. 30, Ladapo urged listeners to rely on “intuition,” when it came to following medical or scientific advice.
“Just check in with your gut. Who do you think you can trust, and go with those individuals,” Ladapo told host Alec Lace.
He added about mask-wearing, “The best scientific evidence has found no benefit for wearing these in the community,” a statement that contradicts most research and vastly overstates even the conclusion of studies that downplay the effectiveness of masks.
“It’s just nonsense,” he said, laughing, while drawing no pushback from Lace.
Ladapo also appeared on right-wing podcasts in the weeks leading up to the November election that DeSantis won by 19% over Democrat Charlie Crist, the largest victory margin in a Florida governor’s race in 40 years.
He disputed widely accepted views of masking and vaccines on shows hosted by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio physician who promotes false claims about COVID-19 shots and wrongly says childhood vaccines cause autism.
Ladapo also appeared on X22 Report, a far-right podcast known for sharing QAnon-related conspiracies and misinformation. He also was on the podcast of conspiracy theorist Stew Peters, who has touted a wide range of false claims about the 2020 election, COVID-19 and more.
Previous Florida surgeon general questions Ladapo advice
During most of his appearances, Ladapo praises DeSantis for sharing his off-center views, amplifying the governor before thousands of listeners and lending the credibility of Florida government to suspect claims.
His predecessor as Florida Surgeon General, Dr. Scott Rivkees, who served for two years beginning in 2019, has criticized Ladapo, lately for his warning that young men should not be vaccinated against COVID-19 because of possible heart risks.
Ladapo’s colleagues at the University of Florida Medical School last month criticized him for “cherry-picking” data to reach his conclusions.
More than 84,000 Floridians have died from COVID-19, while the state has reported about 7.4 million cases since the beginning of the pandemic. At least 1 in 255 Floridians have died from the coronavirus during the pandemic, more than the 1 in 388 resident deaths reported in California, which DeSantis and Ladapo frequently ridicule for tight restrictions.
“It’s not clear what voice he has with the medical community and if the public is truly listening to him,” said Rivkees, a pediatrician and now professor at Brown University School of Public Health.
Rivkees left as surgeon general not long after the DeSantis administration shunted him from public view after he said at an April 2020 COVID-19 news briefing at the state Capitol that people would have to continue social distancing until a vaccine could be approved.
DeSantis by that time was intent on reopening the state following a brief lockdown.
Who is listening to Florida's top doctor?
Of Ladapo, Rivkees said: “He has been broadly opposed in his statements and viewpoints by the American Academy of Pediatrics, most medical organizations and many experts. When it comes to vaccine advice, it really has to do with the doctor-patient relationship.”
DeSantis, himself, had once promoted vaccines. But while the governor quickly emerged as a leading opponent of vaccine and mask mandates, that now has evolved into a wariness about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.
That parallels conservative media, which has embraced vaccine skepticism. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has been questioning the safety of vaccines and airing the views of critics who want them taken off the market.
DeSantis has found an eager ally and promoter in Ladapo.
“The governor supports the work of the Surgeon General in encouraging truthful dialogue about the nature of – and risks associated with – mRNA COVID vaccines,” said Bryan Griffin, a DeSantis spokesman.
When Ladapo was hired in 2021, he earned $362,000 annually in his dual roles at the University of Florida and state Department of Health. A request for his daily schedule and detail on his current salary drew no response from the Health Department.
“He may have the ear of people who are not vaccinated or probably are not going to get vaccinated against COVID,” Rivkees said. “It is not clear what impact he has with people who follow mainstream health care recommendations.
“But in public health and medicine, we recognize that anti-vaccine messages can be harmful,” he added.
Ladapo has been controversial from the beginning
Ladapo’s national profile began taking shape when he wrote an opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal in April 2020, titled “Lockdowns Won’t Stop the Spread.”
Later that year, Ladapo, clad in a white medical coat, went to the steps of the U.S. Capitol where he joined others calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors,” opposing measures intended to combat COVID-19.
Ladapo and others in the group supported the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug, that had been hailed as a COVID-19 treatment by Trump before the Food and Drug Administration cautioned against its use.
Ladapo in 2020 also became a signer of the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated lifting COVID-19 restrictions on lower-risk groups to promote herd immunity, predicting that approach would somehow still protect vulnerable people.
Other signers include Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor, and Dr. Martin Kuldorff, a biostatistician and former Harvard Medical School professor, who have frequently advised DeSantis on COVID-19 policy, most recently before his call for a grand jury probe of vaccines and their distribution.
For DeSantis, heading into what could be a crowded Republican presidential field, a high-profile stance challenging Biden on vaccine policy could prove distinctive.
It also may give him some separation from Trump, who led the Operation Warp Speed development of the vaccine and who remains the favorite of many Republican voters for the 2024 nomination.
For Republican voters, DeSantis appears decisive, said Power, the Leon County GOP leader.
“I think he’s speaking to a provable belief that the vaccines didn’t provide what they said they would,” Power said. “They didn’t prevent transmission and there seem to be some side effects that were breezed over in their implementation.
But Power downplayed the role that DeSantis’ possible presidential ambitions may play in his messaging.
“I see it more that he’s a bold governor who’s taking on challenging issues and doesn’t back down from them. That’s made him a popular governor, and I’m not shocked he’s leading on an important issue like this,” Power said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ladapo on far-right podcasts helps DeSantis woo anti-vaccine voters