This week’s news from Florida has been more disturbing than usual. First, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced he was appointing Dr. Joseph Ladapo as new surgeon general and secretary of the state’s health department.
Ladapo is a controversial choice for that role, being a cardiovascular specialist without training in epidemiology, virology, nor infectious diseases. Ladapo’s background raises other red flags—he appeared in a video for America’s Frontline Doctors, a right-wing group known for promoting misinformation, ivermectin, and hydroxychloroquine. He was also a signatory to the Great Barrington Declaration, which promotes “herd immunity” and normalization of activities as the solution to the covid pandemic; why not for polio and smallpox, too?
Ladapo promptly stated he would “reject fear as a way of making policies in public health.” He has argued against many public health measures, including lockdowns and has argued for allowing individuals and parents to decide, for example, to make their own decision as to whether to quarantine. He’s also opposed masks and vaccine mandates, claiming that vaccination has “been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless.” Ladapo has also claimed, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that “The risks of a COVID-19 vaccine may outweigh the benefits for certain low-risk populations, such as children, young adults and people who have recovered from COVID-19.” In particular, he seems only to be considering death as an outcome and not the chronic debility now known as “long haul” Covid or PASC (Post-Acute Sequelae of SARS CoV-2 infection).
With that as a prelude, Manny Diaz, the Republican chair of Senate Health Policy Committee and the vice-chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Education, someone who opposes mask mandates and has not gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, jumped into the fray. On Thursday (9/23), he announced that he also wants to review vaccine requirements for childhood illnesses like measles and mumps. Students in Florida are currently required to have “proof of vaccination for diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis, inactivated polio vaccine, measles-mumps-rubella, varicella/chickenpox, Haemophilus influenza type b, pneumococcal conjugate, and hepatitis B.” There is an allowance for religious and medical exemptions.
The commentary on Twitter was swift and scathing. Democrat Rep. Carlos G. Smith said, “In Florida, GovRonDeSantis and the GOP have put QAnon anti-vaxxers in the driver’s seat. They’re now in charge of state policy…God help us all.” Attorney Aaron Parnas opined, “Just when you thought the state of affairs in Florida could not get any worse.” Infectious diseases expert and Executive Associate Dean for Emory at Grady Dr. Carlos Del Rio pondered, “Makes you wonder what “pro-life” really means to those who claim to be just that.” Science writer Sherril R. Kirshenbaum asked, “So the strategy they’re going with heading into 2022 is to bring back preventable deadly diseases?”
Dr. Lynn Eldridge added additional perspective:
David Gorski, MD, PhD reviews the slippery slope of revisiting school immunizations, noting that there was widespread, bipartisan support for this basic public health measure until 2014.
This, for example, is what the measles rate looked like:
The Disney measles outbreak in 2014, due to low MMR vaccination rates, prompted California to pass SB 277, a law that essentially eliminated nonmedical religious and “personal belief” exemptions for school immunizations. The anti-vaxxers were galvanized.
Gorski concludes that to ‘”review” all vaccine mandates…was always one part of the endgame of the antivaccine movement, to eliminate all vaccine mandates of any kind.’
In “This is the moment that antivaxxers have been waiting for,” journalist Tara Haelle adds to that historical perspective, Journalist Tara Haelle adds to that historical perspective, emphasizing that limiting nonmedical exemptions boosted those for whom parental rights were more important than public health. Similarly, Renée DiResta, a researcher at Stanford, found this amplified on Twitter, and that the strategy of “a focus on freedom ‘was more resonant with legislators.’”
It’s not just Florida. In July, Tennessee stopped all vaccine outreach to minors. This includes routine vaccinations, HPV, and even influenza shots. The Health Department was prohibited from communicating directly with families. Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the director in charge of vaccinations, was abruptly fired. The health department even went as far as eliminating messages promoting any vaccination from social media.
New Hampshire passed a bill this summer, HOUSE BILL 220:
“AN ACT relative to medical freedom in immunizations and establishing a committee to examine the policy of medical intervention including immunizations.”
More and more states have also passed laws limiting the governor’s power to respond to public health emergencies.
What’s going on in Florida is just the most visible of the growth of an anti-science that has learned effective messaging. You think Covid is bad? Add epidemics of highly infectious measles or other childhood diseases to the mix. With no masks and no vaccinations, the GOP leadership’s choices will lead to the deaths of many children in the name of “freedom.”