TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo moved closer to Senate confirmation Wednesday after a tense hearing where Democrats accused the state's top doctor of evading questions on his coronavirus policies and stormed out before casting their votes.
Ladapo, appointed in September by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, has drawn national scrutiny over his alignment with the governor in resisting COVID-19 vaccine mandates and other virus polices embraced by the White House and federal health officials.
At the hearing Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Health Policy, Democrats tried to pin Ladapo down with "yes or no" questions on whether he believed vaccines and masks work against coronavirus and other topics, but were often met with lengthy answers from Ladapo.
"What I hear is arrogance and polite avoidance," said Sen. Janet Cruz, a Democrat. "So if you wouldn't mind all of this fond rhetoric that you are applying, can we just get straight answers so that more people can hear more information."
In one exchange, Democratic Sen. Lauren Book repeatedly pressed Ladapo on whether he found coronavirus vaccines to be effective. Ladapo responded: "yes or no questions are not that easy to find in science."
He continued, "The most commonly used vaccines in the United States, which would be the Pfizer product and the product that was developed by Moderna, have been shown to have relatively high effectiveness for the prevention of hospitalization and death, and over time, relatively low protection from infection," he said.
In another exchange, Book grilled the surgeon general on whether he regretted his decision to refuse a face mask when meeting with a Democratic state lawmaker in October who told him she had a serious medical issue and later revealed a breast cancer diagnosis. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says cancer patients are at a higher risk to get severely ill from COVID-19 and may not build the same immunity to vaccines.
"Consistent with my approach to clinical care and my approach to health policy issues, I think it's very important to respect people's personal preferences and I think that's a mutual issue," Ladapo said. "So it's important to respect people's preferences and I think that when people's preferences may differ, the goal ought to be to find a way where those individuals can achieve whatever outcome they're aiming to achieve in a way that leaves everyone mutually comfortable."
After several more rounds of back and forth, Book told the committee "we don't feel that we're getting any answers" and said Democrats would leave the room, refusing to vote on Ladapo's confirmation.
After the walkout, Republicans, who control the committee, quickly voted to move the surgeon general's confirmation forward. Ladapo must receive an additional approval from a separate committee and the full Senate before he is officially confirmed.