How will Ron DeSantis’ surgeon general set the rules for COVID-19 masks? – Community News
Covid-19

How will Ron DeSantis’ surgeon general set the rules for COVID-19 masks?

TALLAHASSEE – Lawmakers this week consider giving the state health agency huge discretionary powers when it comes to the pandemic.

Normally, it would be a good idea to give the Florida Department of Health such leeway.

But the proposed power shift comes at a time when the agency is embroiled in controversy. The newly appointed leader, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, has come under heavy criticism from Democrats and medical experts for downplaying the effectiveness of masks and vaccines and the role of safety protocols during a pandemic.

“It just isn’t possible to prevent people from contracting viruses,” Ladapo said in an interview with NewsNation Now in July, before DeSantis appointed him as the state’s surgeon general. “It’s a foolish message.”

Still, a bill would give its agency the power to decide how often employees should be tested to be exempt from a company’s vaccine mandate. The measure would allow the Department of Health to determine how personal protective equipment may be used and what “expected pregnancy” means for similar exemptions. And it would let Ladapo’s agency determine when workers have immunity to a previous COVID-19 infection.

Related: DeSantis Proposes Vaccine Bills for Employers, But Doesn’t Ban Mandates

Lawmakers would entrust these powers to an agency run by a man who, because of the way top officials in Florida are confirmed, still have to be approved by state senators.

“Should he make these decisions without being confirmed?” Senator Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, who sits on the Senate health policy committee, said in an interview.

State law allows Ladapo to remain in office at least until the next term, which begins in January, and the next term, which begins in March 2023, without confirmation.

Republican leaders say the Department of Health is a natural choice to enact some of the medically-related rules in the bill limiting vaccine mandates.

“We have confidence in our Department of Health and the experts in that field,” said Senate sponsor of the bill, Danny Burgess, R-Zephyrhills. “I think it’s important that we give the experts the opportunity to participate in their authorized regulatory authority.”

Burgess’s move would restrict employers from mandating vaccines for their employees unless they provide a number of employee exemptions, including religious and medical exemptions.

With some of those exceptions, Ladapo’s previous views diverge from some of the recommendations made by medical experts interviewed by the Times/Herald.

In July, Ladapo compared calls for extensive masking to “almost a religious obsession” and said masking mandates had “at most … a modest impact” in slowing the pandemic. Days after he was appointed by DeSantis, Ladapo signed an emergency rule that allows families to choose whether to let their children wear masks in schools.

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Ladapo refused to put on a mask last month during a meeting with Democratic senator, Boca Raton’s Tina Polsky, who is being treated for breast cancer. Although Senate Speaker Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, called Ladapo’s behavior “unprofessional” at the time, DeSantis defended him, noting that Polsky had previously been seen in a larger room with unmasked colleagues.

If the vaccine mandate bill is passed, the Department of Health will essentially have to admit that masks are an acceptable alternative to vaccination.

Marissa Baker, an assistant professor of occupational health in the University of Washington’s School of Public Health, said that while masks help protect people from contracting the virus, they are not as effective as a coronavirus vaccine.

“The best policy would be to allow companies to mandate vaccines, point by point, rather than coming up with all the different exceptions,” Baker said.

But if the agency were to establish a mask rule, it would have to take several factors into account, Baker said. For example: should employees wear a mask during meal breaks? Would a cloth face covering be a mask for the purposes of the rule, or would the Department of Health require a certain brand of medical mask for employees?

The Department of Health should answer similar questions about its testing rules, experts say. Baker noted that too frequent rapid tests can produce some disturbing false positives. Tests that are too rare would not yield enough infections to make the workplace safer.

Tom Unnasch, a professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, said the sweet spot would be a rule that should be tested every 72 hours.

Finally, the bill instructs Ladapo’s office to establish a standard for determining “competent medical evidence” of COVID-19 immunity for those who claim not to need a vaccine because they have been previously infected.

Ladapo has expressed confidence in the ability of a past COVID-19 infection to confer future immunity. Last year, he signed the “Great Barrington Declaration,” calling on governments to allow communities to achieve herd immunity by protecting the vulnerable and infecting the healthy.

Unnasch said it can be tricky to come up with a standard for determining immunity. He noted that it is relatively easy to detect COVID-19 antibodies, but it is less certain how much protection those antibodies provide to a person, especially because more time has passed since the initial infection.

A few studies published this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that vaccination provides stronger protection against hospitalization and infection than a previous infection.

But other articles, often cited by DeSantis, have shown that a previous infection protects a person from contracting COVID-19 in the future. For example, the Cleveland Clinic Health System Ohio found that zero of the nearly 1,400 previously infected health care workers contracted COVID-19 again during the duration of a study.

Christina Pushaw, a spokesperson for DeSantis, wrote in an email Monday that it would be relatively easy to set a standard to demonstrate a previous infection.

“There are many ways to document previous COVID infections, including antibody testing and, of course, a record of a previous positive test,” Pushaw said.

• • •

How to get vaccinated?

The COVID-19 vaccine for children 5 years and older and booster shots for eligible recipients are administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, supermarkets and public vaccination sites. Many make it possible to book appointments online. Here’s how to find a branch near you:

Find a location: To find vaccination sites in your zip code, visit vaccines.gov.

More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Helpline.

Telephone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.

TTY: 888-720-7489

Disabled information and access line: Call 888-677-1199 or email [email protected]

• • •

CHILDREN AND VACCINES: Do you have questions about vaccinating your child? Here are some answers.

BOOSTER SHOTS: Not sure which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.

PROTECTING SENIORS: This way seniors can be protected against the virus.

COVID AND THE FLU: Get a flu shot and the COVID vaccine to prevent ‘twin disease’.

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