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COVID-19 Morning Report

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Florida's new surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo speaks at a news conference announcing his appointment, Sept. 21.

Florida's New Surgeon General Downplays Vaccines, Says There Are Other 'Good Pathways to Health'

Physician and researcher Joseph Ladapo was named Florida surgeon general on Tuesday, calling for being “done with fear” amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 51,000 of the state’s residents.

Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference to introduce Ladapo, who has worked as an associate professor at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, but recently received a professorship at the University of Florida College of Medicine.

Ladapo will replace former Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, whose final day in the job was Monday.

During the news conference, Ladapo echoed themes that DeSantis has used during the pandemic, including saying people should be allowed to make choices about their health care and objecting to mandates and lockdowns.

“We are done with fear,” Ladapo said. “That is something that, unfortunately, has been a center point of health policy here in the United States since the start of the pandemic. It’s over here.”

Ladapo also contended that science has been misused and that vaccinations are not the only answer to handling the pandemic.

“The state should be promoting good health,” Ladapo said. “Vaccination is not the only path to that. It has been treated almost as a religion. That is just senseless. There are lots of good pathways to health, and vaccination is not the only one.”

Ladapo will take over the job after Florida became a hotspot for COVID-19 this summer, with the highly contagious delta variant spreading and vaccination rates remaining relatively low in swaths of the state. As of Thursday, Florida had totaled 51,240 deaths and nearly 3.49 million COVID-19 cases since the pandemic started in early 2020, according to a Florida Department of Health report.

While many conservatives have rallied to DeSantis’ approach to avoiding mandates, his positions on issues such as preventing school districts from requiring students to wear masks have been highly controversial.

After large increases in cases, hospitalizations and deaths in July and August, the state has seen lower numbers in September. For example, a federal report Tuesday showed that 8,448 people were hospitalized in Florida with COVID-19. Three weeks earlier, the state had 15,682 patients hospitalized.

Rivkees, who was chairman of the University of Florida College of Medicine’s Department of Pediatrics and physician-in-chief at UF Health Shands Children’s Hospital, was named surgeon general in spring 2019, a few months after DeSantis took office.

Lt. Gov Jeanette Nunez helped negotiate an agreement that allowed Rivkees to remain a tenured professor of pediatrics at the university and continue full-time employment. Under terms of the agreement, Rivkees was assigned to work as the Department of Health secretary, a position that doubles as surgeon general.

The contract was allowable under a law dealing with the transfer of public employees between agencies. But with positions appointed by the governor, such as the Department of Health secretary, the law limits the length of such intergovernmental transfers to two years, with up to a three-month extension allowed.

DeSantis indicated Tuesday that Ladapo will work under a similar arrangement with the university. Ladapo’s research has focused on cardiovascular issues, according to information on the UCLA website.

Rivkees rarely took part in news conferences and worked more behind the scenes, but Ladapo was outspoken Tuesday about issues such as people making health choices.

“We need to respect human rights,” Ladapo said. “People do have autonomy over their lives. It’s not OK, it’s not virtuous and it’s not right to just take away those rights from individuals.”

DeSantis said Ladapo “understands there are no noble lies.”

“You have to say the truth to people,” DeSantis said. “You can’t tell noble lies to try to get them to behave in a way that you think you want them to behave in.”

An All Children's Hospital Physician Is Hopeful as A Vaccine Trial for Kids Yields Promising Results

Pfizer-BioNTech said this week its vaccine trial on children ages 5 to 11 showed promising initial results. The news comes as the greater Tampa Bay region continues to see a spike in cases among younger patients.

Dr. Juan Dumois, a pediatric infectious diseases physician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, attributes the rise to kids and parents letting their guards down earlier this summer.

"We are diagnosing many more children with COVID-19, whether they have mild infection or severe infection,” he said. “And we are also seeing a dramatic increase in the number of children that have required hospitalization for COVID — all in the last two months."

Dumois said the trial’s results confirmed some expectations.

"It's kind of what we had hoped, and to some degree expected to see in the younger children,” he said “Since younger children are mostly healthy, we often see that they have very good responses with other vaccines."

The dose given to the children was lower than adults, he says, and therefore will decrease the chance of side effects. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for children will also be two doses taken three weeks apart, according to a press release.

Dumois estimates the vaccine may be available for children by November or December.

Right now, parents should advise their children to wear masks at school, the physician said. He suggests they make sure it fits comfortably, and that the child likes the design.

Manatee County Commissioners Concerned Over Possible Impacts of a Federal Vaccine Mandate

Manatee County Commissioners are raising concerns about possibly being caught between state law banning COVID-19 vaccine mandates and President Joe Biden's announcement earlier this month of a federal mandate requiring large employers to require workers to get vaccinated, or be tested for the virus weekly.

The Herald Tribune reports, during a meeting last week, Manatee commissioners expressed support for legal challenges from Governor Ron DeSantis to block any federal vaccine mandates.

Manatee County Commissioners, have adopted anti-mandate policies when it comes to coronavirus safety protocols, despite a spike in infections and deaths among county staff. In June, the county's administrative building in Bradenton had to shut down due to infections.

Just between early May and the end of July, Manatee government had 45 employees test positive for the virus, with more than a hundred in quarantine due to an exposure. There have also been a number of hospitalizations and at least four deaths among county staff due to COVID infections.

During last week's meeting, County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh announced the COVID death of Manatee-Sarasota Building Association deputy executive director Beverly Smock, who was ineligible to get the vaccine due to other health concerns.

President Biden's vaccine mandate encompasses state and local government workers in 26 states, not including Florida, but local government officials say that's still a gray area, as the official language has not been finalized.

Last week, Governor DeSantis doubled down on his position, noting that local governments could face fines for requiring workers to get vaccinated.

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