TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Joseph A. Ladapo, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pick to be Florida’s next surgeon general, looks great on paper. He has medical and doctoral degrees from Harvard University and has held professorships at prestigious schools like New York University and UCLA.
But public health experts and some Florida lawmakers have expressed grave concerns with Ladapo. Some say he lacks experience in public health policy. Others point to Ladapo’s questioning of the safety of Covid-19 vaccines or the effectiveness of lockdowns and mask mandates. He has also raised eyebrows for his support of hydroxychloroquine, the anti-malaria drug heralded as a coronavirus treatment by former President Donald Trump. The FDA later withdrew emergency authorization for its use.
Daniel Salmon, the executive director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, said he was amazed that Ladapo’s area of expertise is in cardiovascular disease and yet he felt compelled to question treatment for emerging infectious diseases or the Covid-19 vaccine.
“I certainly know that I am not an expert in cardiovascular disease (despite having a PhD and being a Professor at Johns Hopkins) and would know better than pretending to be an expert in cardiovascular disease,” Salmon wrote in an email.
Ladapo’s appointment by DeSantis gives the Republican governor a health adviser who agrees with his approach to the pandemic. DeSantis staunchly opposes mandates on face masks — especially in schools — and had promoted the use of monoclonal antibody therapies in treating the virus while deemphasizing the need for vaccines. The GOP-controlled Florida Senate still needs to formally approve the 42-year-old Ladapo, but he is expected to be easily confirmed.
As the state’s surgeon general, Ladapo will oversee the Florida Department of Health, which is the lead agency in the state’s fight against Covid-19. His future policies could help control the spread of the coronavirus, especially amid future outbreaks. Over the summer, Florida saw a spike in infections, hospitalizations and deaths as the Delta variant ravaged the state.
Covid-19 has killed more than 53,000 people since the first infections were reported in Florida in March 2020, and more than 3.5 million people have been infected. At least 10,000 of those deaths occurred over the summer as the state was battered by the highly contagious Delta variant, and infections soared in August as schoolchildren returned for fall semester.
For his de facto first day on the job, Ladapo signed an emergency rule that repealed required quarantines for schoolchildren who were exposed to Covid-19.
“I’m really happy to be working with the governor who has a similar vision about how to think about weighing the costs and benefits with managing this pandemic,” Ladapo said during a Sept. 23 news conference on the repeal.
Yet he’s already experiencing a backlash. The UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine has since removed Ladapo’s name and biography from its websites. An internet archive search shows his name disappeared after the Sept. 23 news conference.
Unlike DeSantis, Ladapo has been registered to vote as an independent in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and three children. He was also registered as an independent in North Carolina, where he earned his undergraduate degree from Wake Forest University. North Carolina records show he first registered as a Democrat, but he later switched. He declined to be interviewed for this story, and his New York registration was not immediately available.
Ladapo replaces Scott Rivkees, who resigned over the summer under a joint-agreement with the University of Florida. Ladapo is under a similar agreement with the University of Florida and will also serve as a professor at its medical school, netting him a total salary of $512,000. As of 2020, his salary at UCLA was $319,168, according to a University of California database.
He is also well known for his many op-eds. Ladapo has written at least 12 columns for the Wall Street Journal since the pandemic began in early 2020, many probing the safety of Covid-19 vaccines as well as whether Covid-related restrictions like face masks and lockdowns are needed. He was also among 20 doctors who signed a citizen petition on June 1 urging the FDA not to grant full approval of any of the Covid-19 vaccines until they’ve gone through two years of testing.
“We are concerned that the premature licensure of a COVID-19 vaccine can seriously undermine public confidence in regulatory authorities, particularly if long-term safety issues were to emerge following licensure,” the petition states.
The FDA ended up giving a license to the vaccine made by Pfizer on Aug. 23.
Ladapo also co-authored an analysis published last year in September that determined hydroxychloroquine was effective in treating Covid-19, and reports of heart problems related to the drug were rare. Less than three months before Ladapo’s analysis was published, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration determined hydroxychloroquine wasn’t safe because it led people to have heart problems. Also, an FDA study determined the medicine wasn’t effective against the virus.
Despite the rejection from the FDA, Ladapo joined a news conference with an ultra-right wing group called America’s Frontline Doctors on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court to promote hydroxychloroquine. The group also raised several key points that Ladapo consistently brought up in his Wall Street Journal columns, including how the negative aspects of lockdowns outweighed the impact of the virus itself.
Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican ally of DeSantis, said Ladapo’s credentials easily qualify him to become the next surgeon general. Just because Ladapo’s stance on fighting the pandemic contradicts recommendations from Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, doesn’t make him unqualified, he said.
"Anytime someone, at this stature, disagrees with Dr. Fauci, of course, they say that now he’s not qualified,” Simpson said. “He seems to be very highly qualified, and certainly has got the credentials to make a great surgeon general.”
Simpson said Ladapo’s confirmation will be up to each senator. State Sen. Aaron Bean (R-Fernandina Beach), chair of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said most senators would agree with Ladapo’s approach toward allowing people to make their own health decisions without government influence.
“We have to go to other countries where they don’t make decisions for themselves, and here, we make our own decisions and we want to keep it that way,” Bean said. “I think the majority of people in the Senate particularly would say the same thing.”
Democrat lawmakers believe Ladapo’s hiring was purely political. He is one of roughly 44,000 medical professionals who signed a statement known as the Great Barrington Declaration, which called for the pandemic to be addressed with “Focused Protection,” which directs government to focus only on the protection of the elderly and medically vulnerable. The approach is similar to the course taken by DeSantis.
The declaration, which is backed by a libertarian think tank in Great Barrington, Mass., also points to herd immunity as the silver bullet to slay the pandemic once and for all.
State Sen. Janet Cruz (D-Tampa) said Ladapo’s Ivy league credentials may deceive residents into trusting the politically-charged pandemic strategy waged by DeSantis. She said her husband, who is a kidney doctor at Tampa General Hospital, was shocked by Ladapo’s agnostic take on using the Covid-19 vaccine and wearing face masks to control spread.
“He’s astounded and really quite disappointed that someone with such a pedigree from a medical perspective is buying into these ridiculous conspiracy theories,” Cruz said. “It’s really disappointing.”
Still, Cruz expected Ladapo to have no trouble earning the Senate confirmation.
U.S. Rep. Al Lawson (D-Fla.), whose 5th congressional district encompasses mainly majority Black areas between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, said he was deeply concerned with what Ladapo’s confirmation would mean for boosting vaccination rates among hesitant communities. Ladapo, who is Black, told reporters the Covid-19 vaccine wasn’t nearly as effective as everyone had hoped. This undermined several months of work by Lawson and a consortium of black church pastors who sought to close a racial disparity gap among vaccinated Floridians.
“I was really surprised, because it didn’t seem to be science-based,” Lawson said of Ladapo’s comments. “When you have some African Americans who still talk about the Tuskegee experiment, it really doesn’t help that much for something like that to come out.”
As of about mid-September, 32 percent of Blacks in Florida were fully vaccinated, which is less than the 49 percent of vaccinated whites, according to a weekly report by the Florida Department of Health.
“We’re trying to save lives in this state, now all over the country,” Lawson said. “And it’s in the hands of a new surgeon general who comes out and says they don’t need masks, they don’t need this or that or whatever.”