Column: As Florida remains pandemic hot spot, DeSantis places a ‘COVID crank’ in charge of its response

A person at a lectern.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis just outdid himself with his appointee to lead his state’s public health department.
(Associated Press)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis yields to no one in positioning himself as promoter of the most ghoulishly irresponsible pandemic policies in the nation.

But now he’s outdone himself.

On Tuesday, DeSantis introduced as Florida’s new surgeon general Joseph Ladapo. A medical doctor, Ladapo has what looks superficially like a sterling pedigree — a medical degree from Harvard and a license to practice in California, where he has taught UCLA medical school.

None of that is germane to Florida’s pandemic response. What’s more important is that Ladapo is, as the Orlando Sentinel’s editorial board observed, a “COVID crank.”


Ladapo has questioned the safety of COVID vaccines, despite overwhelming evidence that they are safe and effective. At the event introducing him to the press, he said, “The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn’t the only path for that. It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless.”

He has touted the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine and the anti-parasitic drug ivermectin as treatments for COVID-19, despite the lack of any evidence that they serve that purpose.

The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn’t the only path for that. It’s been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless.

— Florida’s new surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo

In a series of op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, Ladapo has asserted, among other things, that: “Covid mania [has] crowded out reasoned and wise policy making”; that vaccination “mandates infringe on personal autonomy” (true, but they’re hardly the only social regulations that reduce personal autonomy in the name of communal health and safety); and that evidence challenging the vaccines’ safety has been undervalued or even suppressed. The last was based on his flawed reading of a notoriously unreliable database of side-effect reports.

Ladapo has associated himself with a fringe group calling itself “America’s Frontline Doctors.” Indeed, he spoke at the notorious event in July 2020 at which its members promoted hydroxychloroquine and that featured a presentation by Stella Immanuel, who is also known for her belief that witches and demons affect people’s health.

And now, as his first official act as state surgeon general, Ladapo signed an order taking away local school districts’ authority to order children exposed to people with positive coronavirus tests to be quarantined or kept out of class.

Under the order, that decision is to be left to families’ “sole discretion.” Never mind that a child exposed to COVID-19 is capable of passing on the infection to others.


“I trust parents and families, and I don’t think they are going to go around lying,” DeSantis said at a news conference.

All this is happening as Florida continues to reign as the site of one of the most serious outbreaks of the disease in the nation, thanks largely to DeSantis’ refusal to implement statewide social distancing and mask-wearing orders. Instead, he has actively sought to interfere with local initiatives to impose such common-sense anti-pandemic measures.

The harvest is that Florida currently has the second-worst death rate from COVID in the nation. It also boasts the third-worst per capita case rate in the country dating to the beginning of the pandemic.

These figures aren’t of solely local concern. Florida’s wide-open policies lure visitors from other states, where they can spread infections they pick up while partying once they return home.

DeSantis claims to encourage vaccination, but there’s little evidence of that. His who-cares approach has given the anti-vaccine crowd a priceless platform. At a public event on Sept. 13, DeSantis stood silently by as a speaker at the lectern to his right declared, “The vaccine changes your RNA, so for me that’s a problem.” The vaccine, it must be stated, does not change your RNA.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis thinks boasting about his anti-lockdown stance and attacking Anthony Fauci are a winning political play for him, even as COVID rages out of control in his state.

July 20, 2021

What Ladapo has going for him is that his viewpoint closely tracks DeSantis’. In that respect, he rather differs from his predecessor, Scott Rivkees, a pediatrician who garnered the governor’s hostility in April 2020, at the dawn of the pandemic, by stating at a public meeting that until a vaccine was developed, Floridians would have to continue practicing social distancing.

A DeSantis aide sent Rivkees out of the room, like a child who wouldn’t eat his spinach. He and the Department of Health, which he headed, was missing in action against the pandemic until Rivkees formally resigned this month.

Up to Tuesday, the damage done by Ladapo’s views about COVID-19 was limited. Things are different now. As David Gorski, host of the pseudoscience debunking site Respectful Insolence observes, his appointment to head Florida’s entire public health system “represents a dangerous new step in the evolution of the government response to COVID-19.”

One would have expected this from Ron DeSantis. One would have been right.