Why Did the Florida Surgeon General Clam Up When Asked Whether the Vaccines Work?

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Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

For a while, it was enough to yell about the mandates. The vaccines are whatever, the thinking went, but making people get the vaccines is the problem. There's some basis for the argument that this lies beyond the federal government's lawful powers, but with regard to some of these folks, it was hard not to see it as a play. Like it or not, some people in this country have a vested financial or political interest in prolonging the pandemic, or at least in trumpeting rhetoric that will ultimately have that as a consequence. (Another consequence? Lots of unnecessary deaths.) The mandate focus was a way to continually denigrate the vaccination drive as liberal overreach without denigrating the vaccines themselves—a kind of anti-anti-Trump shtick for a new era. I don't oppose vaccines, the routine went, I just spend all of my time speaking about vaccine-related issues in extremely negative terms.

Anyway, it appears that is no longer enough. This stuff is like a drug. You have to continually up the dose. And so you can now find the number-one star at The Fox News Channel hosting some guy who's been thrown off Twitter for spreading comically bad information about COVID-19 to...spread comically bad information about the vaccines. What more could we expect, though, from Alex Berenson, a guy for whom one previous gig was selling the idea that smoking weed makes you a psychotic killer? It's the public officials we might hope to continue holding to some sort of standard, but the evidence out of Florida this week ain't great. They've got a new nominee for surgeon general down there in the nation's third-most-populous state, and at a hearing of the state senate, Joseph Ladapo was asked whether vaccines work in the fight against the pandemic.

Now, this video is from the Florida Senate Democrats, who were clearly trying to score some points throughout. They even cut off the video prematurely, at a point where it appeared Ladapo was beginning to say that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines "have relatively high effectiveness for the prevention of hospitalization" and death. But it is unclear why it took this many repetitions of the question to get anything resembling an answer. The second back-and-forth between Ladapo and state Senator Lauren Book is remarkable.

BOOK: Just a yes or no. Do vaccines work in fighting against COVID-19, yes or no?

LADAPO: Senator, I just—I, I, as a scientist, you know, I, I, I, I am compelled to answer the scientific question. And I'd be happy to answer any specific scientific question that you have related to vaccines and COVID-19.

What? This guy is a public-health official tasked with helping to communicate with the state's residents about the best ways to not get sick or die. By the next question, he folded anyway, essentially admitting that he could have answered these queries the whole time, just like any other functioning adult a year into the vaccination phase of the pandemic. The data—scientific!—is not ambiguous. As Dr. Craig Spencer demonstrated this week, the trends have held through New York City's Omicron wave. Vaccination cuts down not just on hospitalization and death, but also reported cases of infection. Put another way: Vaccines work in fighting against COVID-19.

Which we can pretty safely say Ladapo knows. So why did he clam up when asked to say so? This is like asking a Supreme Court nominee what precedent is. One explanation would be that Ladapo views it as bad politics, assuming he intends to run for higher office in the future as a Republican. Or his boss, Governor Ron DeSantis, views it as bad politics ahead of his now-inevitable presidential run. Both parties now deny it, but DeSantis was recently shadowboxing with ex-President Donald Trump about what stance Republican leaders should take towards the vaccines. It seems that DeSantis is determined to position himself farthest right on the vaccine question, now refusing to say whether or not he's had a booster. Considering he once freely admitted that he got the initial dose(s), this might also be a measure of how vax politics have shifted in the conservative movement over the last year.

Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: SOPA Images - Getty Images

This has come up in policy, too, where DeSantis has repeatedly chosen to emphasize therapeutic treatments for people who contract COVID over vaccines to prevent them from catching COVID in the first place. The flaws in this approach have been exposed by the Omicron variant, against which doctors and nurses have found two widely used monoclonal antibody treatments do not work. (Another antibody treatment does still work, but is in short supply.) The FDA has now rolled back approval for the drugs on that basis, kicking off a backlash from Florida's Republican leadership. The DeSantis strategy seems to be to try to keep deaths down without endorsing the vaccination drive, the latter a sin Donald Trump was recently booed for committing, and the antibody treatments have been a big part of that. It's a remarkable testament to the political content of the vaccines at this point: the same people who bash them as experimental embrace therapeutics that are, if anything, more experimental?

This intra-Republican squabbling is in addition to the party-vs.-party political dynamic fueling at least some of the attacks on the vaccination drive. There are a lot of explanations for President Joe Biden's flagging approval ratings, but the most likely seems to be that he ran on fixing the pandemic and the pandemic is still here. People blame the president for everything in this country, so he takes the heat, some of it deserved. In that sense, the anti-anti-anti-vax types are correct that their behavior will likely benefit the electoral prospects of Biden's political opponents. The question is which of those opponents will triumph over the others by saying the am.

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