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Florida Gets A New Surgeon General, And Lawmakers May Consider Texas-Style Abortion Bill

Rep. Webster Barnaby
News Service of Florida
Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona filled the abortion bill

Florida's surgeon general nominee takes over as the state's top public health official as the COVID-19 infection rate is above 10% across Florida.

Hospitalizations and new cases are falling from recent highs and about two-thirds of adults are vaccinated.

Dr. Joseph Ladapo taught at UCLA’s medical school. He’s also questioned the effectiveness of wearing masks and promoted untested COVID treatments. When he was introduced Tuesday y Gov. Ron DeSantis, Ladapo said he believes getting a vaccine should be an individual choice.

"It’s been treated almost like a religion. And that’s just senseless, right? There are lots of good pathways to health. And vaccination is not the only one. We support measures for good health. That’s vaccination, losing weight, it’s exercising more. It’s eating fruits and vegetables," he said. 

Doctors at hospitals across the state have been urging Florida residents to get vaccinated to avoid serious illness and death.

Just one day into his tenure as the state’s top public health official, Ladapo signed a new order from the Department of Health upending some public school quarantine policies. The new policy says public schools cannot require some students exposed to the virus to be quarantined. If a child has been exposed but is not showing any symptoms of being infected, he says it is now up to parents to decide if their child should stay home or not.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says infected people can spread the virus up to two days before they show any symptoms.

"He has been, along with many of the advisers Gov. DeSantis has chosen, pretty much on the outlier of the public health and medical community," said Mary Ellen Klas, the Miami Herald's capitol bureau chief. "The governor clearly chose someone who is aligned with the views the governor has been embracing."

If confirmed by the Florida Senate, Lapado will replace Dr. Scott Rivkees, who officially stepped down Monday. Rivkees did not have a very public role during the pandemic. Lapado is expected to be a much more high profile surgeon general.

"It's a remarkable time because rather than finding a middle ground, the governor has really ... in many ways, he has politicized this crisis, exacerbating the divisions," Klas said.

Among Lapado's first actions was joining the governor in announcing the new Department of Health rule regarding quarantining some public school students exposed to COVID-19. The new rule replaces a previous order that was the subject of a lawsuit filed by several school boards.

The previous mandate allowed students exposed to the virus to be kept out of school for at least four days. The new order allows those students to stay in school if they are not showing symptoms.

Hillsborough Schools updated its student quarantine policy Wednesday to follow the state directive. Miami-Dade and Broward Public Schools have maintained their earlier student quarantine practices. Miami-Dade changed its policy last week, allowing exposed students who are vaccinated to stay in school as long as they are not showing symptoms.

Texas-Style Abortion Proposal

This week, a Republican lawmaker filed an anti-abortion law in the Florida House modeled after a similar law in Texas.

This bill would ban abortions in the state after about six weeks. Like a similar Texas law, it relies on residents to sue doctors or anyone who assists with an abortion after what supporters call a “fetal heartbeat” is detected. Reproductive health experts say the bill’s name is misleading because an embryo at six weeks’ gestation does not yet have a functional heart, or a heartbeat.

State Rep. Webster Barnaby, from the Space Coast, did not answer questions about his abortion proposal Wednesday.

Barnaby was invited to speak to the Florida Roundup. He did not respond to our invitation. Five other Florida Republican lawmakers were asked for a live or a recorded interview. One declined. The other four did not respond.

"I think this is a really extreme piece of legislation," said state Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation. "I'm sort of surprised because usually when we're going into an election year, people don't want to go to too crazy into the controversy, but they've clearly waded into it."

As Democratic minority leader in the Florida Senate, Book will be responsible for leading the Democratic effort against the legislation. There has yet to be a companion bill introduced in the Senate. She does not think a similar Texas-style bill will be considered in the upper chamber.

"I believe that the product that the Florida Senate drops will be very different than the bill you're looking at today in this House bill," she said.

Until Sept. 10, Book was the chair of the Senate Committee on Children, Families and Elder Affairs. The committee is expected to consider any abortion proposal. She had held that position for three years until Senate President Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, replaced her with South Florida state Sen. Ileana Garcia, R-Miami. Simpson said it was because of challenges in holding multiple leadership positions.

"I certainly think that my ability to fight against, and my caucus's ability to fight against, a piece of legislation or work to change a product is not stopped because I'm not a chair of a committee," Book said.
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In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.