TALLAHASSEE – Days after Gov. Ron DeSantis opened his second term with a fighting speech blasting federal COVID-19 policies as based “more on ideology and politics than on sound science,” Florida’s surgeon general was a guest at one podcast called Liberty Lockdown.
“Isn’t it a beautiful day to be unvaccinated? It feels so good,” host Clint Russell said before beginning his conversation with Dr. Joseph Ladapothe state’s chief medical officer who is also a tenured faculty member by University of Florida.
With DeSantis expected in the coming months to formally launches its 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 make up an astonishingly large portion of the GOP’s national voter base.
DeSantis himself appeals to this Republican core, which is defying most medical advice about the virus, prompting the Florida Supreme Court last month to open a statewide grand jury investigation into what he called “crimes and misdemeanors” related to the COVID-19 vaccinations.
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Florida’s top doc, a favorite of the far right: Florida Surgeon General Ladapo appears on anti-vaccine podcast, promotes medical falsehoods
DeSantis kept up the drum beat Jan. 17, calling on the Republican-controlled Legislature to enact permanent bans on school mask mandates along with government and employer vaccine requirements that had been passed in the short term in 2021.
Leans into conspiracies
At a raucous rally in Republican-leaning Bay County, DeSantis leaned into conspiracy theories, saying the medical establishment, President Joe Biden and the old media were working to “impose a biomedical 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 brushing it off and saying everything’s OK. He’s speaking for a large group of people out there,” said Evan Power , chairman 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 political group. “We’ve just become the anti-science party in some states.”
Thirty-five percent of self-identified Republicans are unvaccinated, compared to just 6% of Democrats, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation’s COVID-19 Vaccine Monitor. Anti-vaccine messages have become part of DeSantis’ pitch as he prepares to take the national stage.
“I have great respect for your governor,” Meeks added. “But along with all that ‘freedom’ that he cares about 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 for the administration, appearing on right-wing podcasts airing questionable claims about the vaccines and denouncing the federal government’s masking, shutdowns and social distancing guidance that marked the early stages of COVID-19 – the outbreak, which is now in its fourth year.
“It’s so obvious to me that Dr. Fauci is a complete fraud when it comes to communication,” Ladapo told Liberty Lockdown listeners in a podcast that aired Jan. 9, targeting the now-retired chief medical adviser for both former President Donald Trump and Biden during the pandemic.
“His goal is not communication. It is manipulation,” Ladapo said.
Recent hard right appearances
The Liberty Lockdown appearance was the doctor’s latest podcast, which attracts a significant segment of conservative followers.
Weeks earlier, in a First Class Fatherhood podcast that aired Nov. 30, Ladapo urged listeners to trust “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 to wearing these in the community,” a statement that contradicts most research and greatly overstates even the conclusion of studies that downplay the effectiveness of masks.
“It’s just nonsense,” he said, laughing, not pulling back from Lace.
Ladapo also appeared on right-wing podcasts in the weeks leading up to the November election, in which DeSantis won by 19% over Democrat Charlie Crist, the largest margin of victory in a Florida gubernatorial race in 40 years.
He challenged widely accepted views on masking and vaccines on broadcasts hosted by Dr. Sherri Tenpenny, an Ohio doctor who promotes false claims about COVID-19 shots and falsely says childhood vaccines cause autism.
Ladapo also appeared on the X22 Report, a right-wing podcast known for sharing QAnon-related conspiracies and misinformation. He was also 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.
Former Florida surgeon general issues Ladapo advice
During most of his appearances, Ladapo praises DeSantis for sharing his off-center views, reinforcing the governor to thousands of listeners and giving Florida government credibility to question allegations.
His predecessor as Florida Surgeon General, Dr. Scott Rivkees, who served for two years from 2019, has criticized Ladapo recently 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 often deride for tight restrictions.
“It’s not clear what voice he has with the medical community and whether the public is really listening to him,” said Rivkees, a pediatrician and now a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.
Rivkees left as surgeon general not long after the DeSantis administration shunted him from the public 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 at the time was intent on reopening the state after a brief shutdown.
Who listens to Florida’s best doctor?
Of Ladapo, Rivkees said: “He has been widely opposed in his statements and views 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 has now evolved into a caution about the effectiveness and safety of the vaccines.
It corresponds to conservative media, which has embraced vaccine skepticism. Fox News’ Tucker Carlson has questioned the safety of the vaccines and aired the views of critics who want them removed from the market.
DeSantis has found an eager ally and promoter in Ladapo.
“The governor supports the surgeon general’s work to encourage a 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 the State Department of Health. A request for his daily schedule and details of his current salary did not elicit a response from the Ministry of Health.
“He may have the ear of people who are not vaccinated or likely will not be vaccinated against COVID,” Rivkees said. “It’s not clear what impact he has on people following general health recommendations.
“However, 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 to take 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, dressed in a white medical coat, took to the steps of the US Capitol, where he joined others calling themselves “America’s Frontline Doctors” in opposing measures aimed at combating COVID-19.
Ladapo and others in the group supported the use of hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that had been touted as a COVID-19 treatment by Trump before the Food and Drug Administration warned against its use.
In 2020, Ladapo also became a signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration, which advocated lifting COVID-19 restrictions on lower-risk groups to promote herd immunity, predicting that this approach would still protect vulnerable people.
Other signatories include Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a Stanford professor, and Dr. Martin Kuldorff, a biostatistician and former Harvard Medical School professor who has frequently advised DeSantis on COVID-19 policy, most recently before his call for a grand jury investigation into 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 could also give him some separation from Trump, who led Operation Warp Speed development of the vaccine and remains the favorite among many Republican voters for the 2024 nomination.
For Republican voters, DeSantis appears to be crucial, said Power, the Leon County GOP leader.
“I think he speaks to a demonstrable belief that the vaccines didn’t do what they said they would,” Power said. “They did not prevent transmission and there appear to be some side effects that were overwhelmed in their implementation.
But Power downplayed the role DeSantis’ possible presidential ambitions may play in his messaging.
“I see it more that he’s a bold governor who takes on challenging issues and doesn’t back down from them. That’s made him a popular governor, and I’m not shocked that he’s leading an important topic like this,” Power said.
John Kennedy is a reporter in the USA TODAY Network’s Florida Capital Bureau. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JKennedyReport
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ladapo on right-wing podcasts helps DeSantis woo anti-vaccine voters