Is DeSantis's new surgeon general an anti-vaxxer?

If he’s not straight-up anti-vax, he’s anti-anti-anti-vax at best. He sounds like Tucker Carlson in the press conference below, sidestepping the benefits from the shot and questioning their safety and effectiveness.

We’d expect that from a primetime Fox News host, not from a health official.

In 19 months of covering the pandemic, I can’t remember any state medical officer — even in solid red states — trying to put people off vaccination the way Dr. Joseph Ladapo does here. For months, opponents of vaccine mandates in the GOP’s political class have insisted that being anti-mandate isn’t tantamount to being anti-vaccine. You can encourage people to get the shot while also demanding that they be allowed to make that decision free of any coercion, even from the private sector.

Ladapo doesn’t seem to draw that distinction so finely. He’s anti-mandate because he has … questions about the vaccine, let’s just say.

All that’s missing is him telling people to “do your own research.” Last month, when he joined DeSantis’s administration, he was asked about his views on vaccination and gave this less than enthusiastic reply:

“Vaccines are up to the person. There is nothing special about them compared to any other preventative measure,” Ladapo said.

“The state should be promoting good health, and vaccination isn’t the only path to that. It’s been treated almost like a religion and it’s senseless,” he said. “…We support measures for good health — vaccinations, losing weight, exercising, eating more fruits and vegetables, everything.”

There’s nothing special about a medical treatment that induces your body to make antibodies against the spike protein on the coronavirus relative to “eating more fruits and vegetables”? What?

I wonder what convinced DeSantis that Ladapo would be an asset to his state. Ah:

The governor could have had any of thousands of doctors to serve as Florida’s surgeon general and instead went and got a guy who was touting Trump’s failed miracle cure for COVID last year. Consider this part of the undeclared arms race between DeSantis and Greg Abbott to see who can one-up the other by pandering to anti-vax populists more aggressively in their policies. Abbott recently outmaneuvered DeSantis by prohibiting all private businesses in Texas from requiring their workers to get vaccinated, an anti-mandate mandate that exploded the GOP’s traditional “leave businesses alone” ethic. DeSantis hasn’t gone that far yet but he countered today by calling on the Florida legislature to hold a special session and pass laws that discourage businesses from imposing mandates, such as by holding them liable for any medical harm suffered by a worker from getting vaccinated. That’ll create plenty of frivolous suits from people who got vaxxed to keep their jobs and then had some unrelated health problem months later and want to be compensated for it by trying to connect it to the vaccine somehow. And of course the legislation will be another nod to anti-vaxxers’ belief that the vaccines are dangerous.

Having a surgeon general who’s lukewarm about the value of vaccination is the icing on the cake, though. How will Abbott respond? Maybe cut an ad in which he grabs a rifle and shoots vials of the vaccine off a fence post?

DeSantis’s own rhetoric about vaccination has turned chillier lately as the competition from Abbott and other anti-mandate Republicans has gotten hotter. His fans on Twitter typically answer criticism that his bans on mandates are irresponsible by noting that DeSantis himself has always encouraged Floridians to get vaccinated. He won’t pressure them and he won’t let anyone else do so but he recommends the shot. Last week, though, he resorted to telling an audience that vaccination is useful in preventing hospitalization but not very useful in preventing transmission, an argument which he used to support his opposition to mandates. (Why should anyone require a group of people, like work staff, to get immunized if the only benefit from doing so is to the individual, by reducing the severity of their illness?) His surgeon general also downplayed the effect of vaccination on transmission today:

“These vaccines are not preventing transmission. So sure, they reduce the likelihood of transmission, and even that is sort of questionable depending on how far out you go,” Ladapo said. “I’ve heard some leaders say things like, ‘We’ll create safe workplaces by mandating these vaccines.’ Well, they’re really decoupled, because the infections can still happen whether people are vaccinated or not.”

Why would a doctor shrug at the benefit of reducing transmission — which he admits the vaccines do, correctly — just because they don’t eliminate it entirely? Given Pfizer’s blockbuster results from its booster study today, it’s a safe bet that people who’ve had three doses are much less likely to transmit the virus than the unvaccinated are. Every other surgeon general in the country would be pointing to that as a reason for why the vaccinated should go get a boost, not hinting that waning immunity after two doses is a reason not to bother getting vaccinated at all.

I don’t know how DeSantis can stand there in good conscience, having seen data like this…

…and have his deputies evince only tepid enthusiasm about getting the shots before an audience of 20 million Floridians, of whom some 40 percent still aren’t fully vaccinated. Everything you need to know about the state of the GOP in 2021 is that he’s betting this indefensible posture will benefit him in a national primary. And he’s correct.