News about the coronavirus loomed large as Florida senators debated the confirmation of Scott Rivkees as the state’s surgeon general. Rivkees has been acting as surgeon general since Gov. Ron DeSantis appointed him last year, but lawmakers didn’t make it official until now.
As Rivkee’s confirmation came up for consideration on the Senate floor, Democrats brought up concerns about his experience in the public health arena. Sen. Kevin Rader (D-Boca Raton) says it’s clear to him Rivkees is an excellent doctor.
“When you look at his resume. I’m literally in astonishment and in awe how great it is. He is one of the preeminent pediatricians in the country. There’s no doubt about it,” Rader said.
But Rader says Rivkees doesn’t have the experience specifically required by Florida law, which Rader says stipulates “the state surgeon general must be a physician who has advanced training or extensive experience in public health administration.”
Rader argues he can’t much of find that on Rivkee’s resume other than chairing the Connecticut Academy of Science and Engineering.
During a committee meeting Rivkees told lawmakers he has public health experience stemming from his work as an undergrad student testing samples from children for lead poisoning. He also mentioned his work on newborn screening programs in several states and says work he’s done at the University of Florida that falls also under the umbrella of public health.
“I have longstanding interest in public health and areas of public health laboratories, epidemiology, caring for children with complex conditions and organizational leadership," Rivkees says.
And lawmakers like Sen. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), point out Rivkees has gained more experience working to address Florida’s hepatitis A outbreak. But Sen. Lori Berman (D-Boyton Beach) says she’ isn’t convinced—especially as concerns over the coronavirus grow in Florida.
“It was noted he really doesn’t have the public health background we need in this state. And this is not the time for someone without a public health background,” Berman says.
Sen. Jason Pizzo (D-Miami) says he doesn’t think it makes sense to replace Rivkees in the middle of the state’s fight against the virus. He says Floridians need stability.
“This is not the time to change teams. I think we have a governor and a cabinet who are smart enough to know they don’t know what they don’t know sometimes and they’re not afraid to ask. The smartest people I know, but I’ll find out the answer,” Pizzo says.
But questions about Rivkees' public health experience aren’t the only concerns that have been raised about the doctor. He’s also faced scrutiny over sexual harassment allegations. A News Service of Florida report shows Rivkees allegedly made comments including, “if we can’t agree on this we’ll have to get naked in a hot tub and work it out.” Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation) questioned Rivkees about that during a committee meeting earlier this session.
“There have been a lot of reports about sexual harassment and some impropriety related to some comments that you have made in the past. And I wanted to go through what you have learned from those things, how we can grow from them," Book said.
Rivkees told Book those allegations stem from his work at the University of Florida.
" I was brought to the University of Florida in 2012 and was brought to a department that needed some revamping. This ruffled the feather of some faculty members who then launched a series of personal attacked against me and against the university. That’s where these came from.”
Rivkees says he’s treated everyone he’s worked with with “respect and dignity.” But Book pushed the issue further. She says Rivkees has admitted to making some of the comments he’s been accused of.
“It’s my understanding that you admitted they were credible but that you characterized them as jokes and made in poor taste. So I just want to ensure that those things don’t continue,” Book said.
Book pushed Rivkees to commit to sexual harassment training within his office. He answered that he would check into what requirements are currently in place.
Rivkees also contiues to work at the University of Florida, but he says his work there is limited to night and weekends. He has assured lawmakers he is a “full time surgeon general.”