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After a lengthy grilling on his merits and qualifications, the Senate Health Policy Committee voted — without its Democratic members — to recommend that Joseph Ladapo be confirmed as Florida's Surgeon General.
Frustrated by what she and her colleagues called a lack of honest answers from Ladapo after more than an hour of questioning, Senate Democratic Leader Lauren Book of Plantation said Democrats on the panel would walk out of the room.
"We have an extreme amount of respect for process, but we are not getting any answers," Book said.
After the four Democrats left the room, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Jacksonville, called for a vote on recommending confirmation. Republicans, who make up six of the 10 members of the committee, all voted in favor of confirmation.
Appointed by Gov. Ron DeSantis to the position in September, Ladapo's controversial views bucking the accepted wisdom of the medical and scientific community have been criticized from the start by state Democrats.
As expected, they questioned him about his qualifications to lead a state during a pandemic and run a statewide organization of 17,000 people, responsible for a wide range of health care issues in the country's third-largest state.
Recent coverage from the USA TODAY Network-Florida:
I'd like to thank the FL Senate's Health Policy Committee for the important discussions during today's confirmation hearing. I fully respect the importance of the legislature in our democracy, & I'm grateful for the opportunity to serve all Floridians as Surgeon General. pic.twitter.com/fMk4IfnzAz
— Joseph A. Ladapo, MD, PhD (@FLSurgeonGen) January 26, 2022
But they were frustrated that he gave long-winded, indirect answers to what they said were relatively simple questions. They included his experience in public health administration or details of the current state of the pandemic in Florida.
He also gave murky answers about his criticism of the Biden administration and his ability to work with the federal government, and whether he had a plan for ending the pandemic in Florida.
"What I hear is arrogance and polite avoidance," said Sen. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, adding that Ladapo seemed fond of his own rhetoric. "This is not a joke."
She said his answers to simple questions were "mired in words upon words and nonsense." She asked committee chair Manny Diaz to instruct Ladapo to provide concise, answers and Diaz obliged.
Shortly after, however, Book cut the proceedings short, mentioning the long list of bills to get through before the hearing was scheduled to end at noon. Immediately after the roll-call vote, Book was back on the dais presenting one of her bills.
Ladapo says vaccines of little use long-term, and masks not at all
Ladapo wouldn't give yes-or-no answers to Book's repeated questions about the effectiveness of COVID vaccines and masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19, saying those were nuanced, scientific questions that required unpacking a lot of data.
"I consider vaccines in the same way I consider other medical therapies," Ladapo said. "What we care about clinically is whether they are safe and effective and that is the lens through which I view all medical therapies."
Ultimately, he said vaccines have some benefit cutting down hospitalizations and deaths, but were not effective in preventing infections in the long term, and that masks were not effective at all, especially among children.
Book also asked Ladapo if he regretted his treatment of fellow Sen. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton, who was undergoing cancer treatment at the time when he refused to wear a mask in her office at her request.
But he couldn't give a straight yes-or-no answer to that question either.
"I have sympathy for her and other people diagnosed with serious conditions," Ladapo said. "Despite the politics of our environment it is a human thing, and I sincerely wish her the very best."
He added it was important to respect people's personal preferences, including his own. "When preferences differ, the goal should be to find a mutual outcome that makes everyone comfortable," he said.
Immediately after that exchange, Sen. Bobby Powell, D-West Palm Beach, asked Ladapo if he saw apologizing as a sign of weakness.
"The question of apologies or weakness appears to be a personal value question, if I understand you correctly," Ladapo said, adding that he didn't think they were related to what people say and do.
Sen. Shevrin Jones, D-Miami, asked Ladapo to explain why Dr. Raul Pino, the Orange County Health Department chief, was placed on administrative leave after urging his staff to get vaccinated.
Ladapo said he couldn't comment because the matter was under investigation, but Jones said, "Your office is the one who released him. Is that going to be a trend of others being let go because they are doing what they think is best for their department."
Ladapo replied, "That particular position was not placed on administrative leave for any reasons that were potentially political or anything other than policies that we have at the Department of Health."
During a press availability afterwards, Ladapo said, "My goal was to accurately answer their questions and I think I fulfilled that goal."
Ladapo has been criticized for issuing an order preventing schools from quarantining students exposed to COVID-19, promoting misinformation about the effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, issuing a ruling perceived as discriminatory against Black farmers applying for medical marijuana licenses, and refusing to wear a mask in the office of a senator who was receiving cancer treatments.
The governor’s office has repeatedly pointed to Ladapo’s pedigree with his medical degree and Ph.D. from Harvard University and his several years as a clinical researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles studying obesity and cardiac disease.
The only statutory requirement for surgeon general, a position created in 2007 by then-GOP Gov. Charlie Crist, is that the person be a physician licensed under state law with “advanced training or extensive experience in public health administration.”
'Grave concerns': Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo's medical license OK'd in two days
Senate to vote on Ladapo confirmation
The 10-member Health Policy Committee was the first stop on the way to a full Senate vote. The Ethics and Elections Committee will have the next opportunity to interview Ladapo in what is sure to become a campaign issue in the governor's race.
The three major Democratic candidates for governor have called for Ladapo's removal and for the Senate to reject his nomination, including Sen. Annette Taddeo, D-Miami, co-chair of the Ethics and Elections Committee.
In a statement, Nikki Fried — the state's agriculture commissioner, only statewide elected Democrat, and another candidate for governor — said Ladapo "has proven himself time and time again to be anti-science and anti-public health. He’s a quack who shouldn’t be anywhere near our state’s Surgeon General office, let alone running it."
Fried said she hopes the Senate can come together "in a bipartisan way to reject his nomination and protect our state from the dangerous policies and conspiracy theories he and Gov. DeSantis have been promoting.”
Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.
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This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Senate health committee recommends Ladapo confirmation, without Democrats