A contentious confirmation hearing for Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo ended abruptly Wednesday after Democrats walked out in protest, prompting Republicans to immediately vote to favorably recommend Ladapo.
Democrats grew increasingly exasperated at Ladapo for his lengthy, circular responses that wouldn’t directly answer their questions about his background and the state’s response to the pandemic.
Five times state Sen. Lauren Book asked Ladapo if vaccines worked against the coronavirus. Ladapo refused to say.
“Do the vaccines work against preventing Covid-19? Yes or no?” Book, a Democrat from Plantation, asked.
Ladapo responded: “Yes or no questions are not that easy to find in science.”
He later conceded that the vaccines have “relatively high effectiveness for the prevention of hospitalization.” US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that in November, unvaccinated adults had 15 times the risk of dying from Covid-19 compared with fully vaccinated adults. In the same month, unvaccinated adults had 68 times the risk of dying from Covid-19 compared with fully vaccinated adults who had received booster doses.
Ladapo, who was appearing before the state Senate Health Policy Committee, also declined to say if he regretted not wearing a mask when in the presence of state Sen. Tina Polsky, a Democrat. Polsky has been diagnosed with breast cancer and asked Ladapo to wear a mask during their meeting. He declined, earning a rebuke from state Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican.
He also would not answer questions about the decision by the state Department of Health to suspend Orange County’s top public health official. Dr. Raul Pino was placed on administrative leave after he sent an email criticizing his colleagues for the department’s low vaccination rate.
Ladapo did not discuss details of the case, citing an ongoing investigation, but he assured the Senate panel Pino was “absolutely not placed on administrative leave for any reasons that were potentially political, or related to anything other than the policies that we have at the Department of Health.”
Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed Ladapo to be the state’s top doctor in September. Since then, Ladapo has helped lead the state Department of Health’s crackdown on mask mandates in schools and against vaccine mandates by private businesses.
DeSantis plucked Ladapo from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA where he worked with HIV patients and conducted research on cardiovascular diseases. By then, Ladapo had gained attention during the pandemic after penning a series of op-eds that challenged the consensus scientific opinion on vaccines, masks and mitigation strategies.
In a piece he co-authored for the Wall Street Journal last June, Ladapo asserted that the “risks of a Covid-19 vaccine may outweigh the benefits for certain low-risk populations.” Several months later, he wrote for the Journal that vaccine mandates were an “unsustainable strategy designed to achieve an unattainable goal.”
The three vaccines available in the United States are safe and effective at preventing severe Covid-19 illness and death. They were studied in large clinical trials that included thousands of people, and more than 210 million people in the United States have been fully vaccinated since the vaccines were authorized for emergency use by the US Food and Drug Administration.
In December, rates of Covid-19-associated hospitalizations were 16 times higher in unvaccinated adults compared with fully vaccinated adults, according to the CDC. In the same month, Covid-19-related hospitalization rates were 49 times higher among unvaccinated people age 65 and older than in older adults who were fully vaccinated and boosted.
Ladapo was also among a group of doctors that supported controversial and unproven Covid-19 therapies such as ivermectin and hydroxychloroquine.
Ladapo replaced Dr. Scott Rivkees as Florida’s surgeon general. Rivkees exited after 18 months leading the state’s health department through the pandemic, mostly from behind the scenes. During an April 2020 meeting streamed on a state-operated channel, Rivkees acknowledged that Covid mitigation measures like social distancing were unlikely to subside until a vaccine was widely available. Rivkees was pulled from the meeting shortly after and was rarely seen in public again.
Ladapo, though, has been a featured member of DeSantis’ coronavirus response team. He maintains an active Twitter account, regularly appears on conservative media and travels with DeSantis to announce the administration’s latest pandemic initiatives.
When DeSantis signed a bill in Tampa that banned vaccine mandates, Ladapo was cheered wildly and stayed after DeSantis had exited to take pictures with supporters.
In Florida, the surgeon general must be confirmed by the state Senate, though DeSantis can reappoint Ladapo if the full chamber declines to take up his nomination during the current legislative session.
Ladapo told the Senate panel on Wednesday he earns between $440,000 annually from the University of Florida, where he teaches, through an intergovernmental agreement with the state. Ladapo recently told the Wall Street Journal that he resides in Tampa with his wife and three kids.
Ladapo’s confirmation comes as Florida and the Biden administration continue to spar over the availability of certain monoclonal antibody treatments. The US Food and Drug Administration recently restricted the use of the drugs because they have not proven effective against the Omicron variant in lab studies. The CDC has said Omicron now makes up more than 99% of all coronavirus cases.
Federal health officials have urged states to pivot to more proven treatments. But DeSantis and Ladapo have continued to insist that all monoclonal antibody treatments should be available to states. The makers of the affected treatments, Eli Lilly and Regeneron, have said they support the FDA decision.
Asked about this position during Wednesday’s hearing, Ladapo justified it by saying that “laboratory data and patient clinical data don’t always match up perfectly.” He has not presented clinical data that these antibody therapies help patients with the Omicron variant.
Ladapo, who has taken controversial stances on coronavirus mitigation measures like masks and vaccines, told state senators on Wednesday that he was committed to improving the health of Floridians by “applying scientific data, evidence-based strategy and a sensible approach to public health.”
Democrats on the committee immediately raised questions about Ladapo’s credentials to run the state’s top public health agency. He worked as a physician and clinical researcher at UCLA, but not in public health.
Ladapo insisted he has “dedicated my professional career to issues of important public health relevance” and noted his coursework at Harvard, where he graduated from medical school and earned an advanced degree in health policy.
As the hearing continued, Democrats frequently cut off Ladapo’s long answers and accused him of not answering their questions.
“What I hear is arrogance and polite avoidance,” state Sen. Janet Cruz of Tampa. “Can we just get straight answers so we can get more information?”
At the 80-minute mark, Book, the Senate Democratic leader, said they weren’t getting adequate answers and would no longer participate in the hearing. She and her Democratic colleagues then walked out.
Republicans responded by immediately calling for a vote on Ladapo’s confirmation. He was recommended favorably by the Senate Health Policy Committee without any further questions, public input or debate. Democrats did not vote.
This story has been updated with additional information.