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Ron DeSantis’s controversial surgeon general questions safety of vaccines

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) greets President Donald Trump at a campaign rally in October 2020. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s effort to assure everyone he’s not playing footsie with anti-vaccine Republicans has once again run into reality.

When opinion pieces in local newspapers this summer blamed DeSantis (R) for not supporting vaccinations enough amid a huge spike in cases, his spokesperson assured Fox News, “The governor has consistently stated that vaccines are safe and effective in preventing serious illness in most people.”

Since then, though, DeSantis has stood silently beside a speaker promoting the bogus conspiracy theory that vaccines change your RNA. And a week later, he appointed a new surgeon general with a controversial history that included not just opposing vaccine mandates, but downplaying the importance of vaccines. The doctor, Joseph Ladapo, also aligned with a fringe group of medical professionals, called America’s Frontline Doctors, which pushed hydroxychloroquine as a “cure” for the virus and later fought against the emergency authorization of the vaccines.

On Thursday came a moment DeSantis had to know might arrive: When his surgeon general offered a message decidedly more skeptical of vaccines and their safety than the governor has indicated he is.

“I mean, you hear these stories, people telling you what’s been happening in their lives — nurses, pregnant women who are being forced to sort of put something in their bodies that we don’t know all there is to know about yet,” Ladapo said. “No matter what people on TV tell you, it’s not true. We’re going to learn more about the safety of these vaccines.”

Ladapo went on to suggest that those anecdotal reports should give us caution.

“This idea that we are foolish for … believing people who are telling us things that we don’t have data for right now is ridiculous,” he added. “And people need to continue and stick with their intuition and their sensibilities.”

Again, DeSantis stood by the person saying these things, with no indication he disagreed.

A DeSantis spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, told The Washington Post that she took Ladapo’s comments as “a statement of fact, not an opinion about whether or not the vaccines are safe.”

“The data we have available at this time shows the vaccines are safe and effective for most people,” Pushaw said, while emphasizing “most people.” “But it would be irresponsible to assert that any pharmaceutical product is safe and effective for everyone.”

Pushaw added that “it is possible that we will learn more about adverse effects over time, if there are any adverse effects that show up in the long run.”

At the very least, though, Ladapo’s comments leaned much more into the idea that vaccines might be unsafe than DeSantis has. Ladapo suggestively pointed to what we don’t know and the idea that various unspecified anecdotes — rather than the volume of studies we have — suggest the vaccines’ safety might be called into question.

And again, this kind of thing was probably foreseeable. Ladapo’s recent history when DeSantis hired him included aligning himself with a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, Stella Immanuel, who has claimed endometriosis was caused by sex with demons in one’s dreams. Even setting that aside, the news conference Ladapo appeared in with Immanuel involved claims that hydroxychloroquine was a “cure” for the coronavirus which, no matter what study you want to cherry-pick from or even if you believe the drug might have some benefit for coronavirus patients, simply has no basis.

This is merely the latest example in a consistent thread we’ve seen in the Republican Party throughout the pandemic, in which it provides platforms to or at least declines to correct those contributing to vaccine skepticism and even, in some cases, wild conspiracy theories.

From our piece on DeSantis and the RNA incident last month:

The GOP’s ability to do more about such things is indisputable. Its political will is clearly another matter entirely.
And it’s not just turning a blind eye to what [Sen. Ron] Johnson is up to. It’s ignoring the rampant and consistent vaccine misinformation on prime-time Fox News shows, including Tucker Carlson’s. Republican state legislators have repeatedly provided forums to fringe figures who promote not just criticism of vaccine mandates, but full-fledged anti-vaccine conspiracy theories — with no evident pushback from the broader party. Even medical doctors in the GOP caucus have declined to repudiate vaccine misinformation from the likes of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), while expressing much-stronger views on her suspension from Twitter over it. Claims that the vaccination effort is akin to Nazi-era policies also have been deemed unworthy of repudiation.

Ladapo’s comments might not rise to the level of some of these things, but they would seem to have the predictable impact of seeding skepticism about the vaccines’ safety — and from an appointed health official in one of the country’s largest states, no less.

It’s a message DeSantis and even most Republican officeholders (save for those like Johnson) really haven’t pushed. But they’ve allowed for it, seemingly in no small part because there’s a constituency for it.

Coronavirus: What you need to know

The latest: The CDC has loosened many of its recommendations for battling the coronavirus, a strategic shift that puts more of the onus on individuals, rather than on schools, businesses and other institutions, to limit viral spread.

Variants: BA.5 is the most recent omicron subvariant, and it’s quickly become the dominant strain in the U.S. Here’s what to know about it, and why vaccines may only offer limited protection.

Vaccines: Vaccines: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone age 12 and older get an updated coronavirus booster shot designed to target both the original virus and the omicron variant circulating now. You’re eligible for the shot if it has been at least two months since your initial vaccine or your last booster. An initial vaccine series for children under 5, meanwhile, became available this summer. Here’s what to know about how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections and booster history.

Guidance: CDC guidelines have been confusing — if you get covid, here’s how to tell when you’re no longer contagious. We’ve also created a guide to help you decide when to keep wearing face coverings.

Where do things stand? See the latest coronavirus numbers in the U.S. and across the world. The omicron variant is behind much of the recent spread.

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