Florida

Florida doctors fear DeSantis is offering a platform to “fringe” dermatologists

Now, Ward is stirring new controversy in the state’s medical community after appearing alongside Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis at several events where Ward opposed Covid-19 vaccines and most efforts to contain the pandemic.

Ward’s views align with DeSantis’ on Covid. The Florida governor has built a national reputation by turning down Covid-19 mandates like masking students and vaccinating children. DeSantis surgeon general Joe Ladapo has also come under fire from the medical community for questioning the safety of vaccines and warning men against taking the Pfizer BioNTech and Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.

DeSantis is using his opposition to Covid-19 restrictions and his advocacy of medical “free speech” as a central pillar of his messaging strategy, and the issue will likely feed into a potential presidential bid in 2024. The Republican has reached out to Ward multiple times to confirm his positions.

Ward does not hold an official position in the DeSantis administration and does not advise the Governor in an official capacity. However, DeSantis appointed Ward to the Northwest Florida State College District Board of Trustees’ board of trustees — a non-medical position — in March.

DeSantis introduced the doctor during a March news conference as “one of the engines behind” the movement that allows doctors to speak freely without being reprimanded by medical regulators for controversial views.

“Politics has always been in medicine, no question, but the pandemic has really exacerbated these problems,” said Marianne Udow-Phillips, founding director of the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan and an associate professor in UM’s School of Public Health. “The profession is investigating the issue in depth,” she said. “The concern is great. There is no question that the profession is rethinking the issue and taking a closer look at how misinformation is propagated.”

Some universities are beginning to include communication as an element in the medical school curriculum, an area that public health has historically not prioritized.

“There is tremendous concern,” Udow-Phillips said. “There is no question that the profession is rethinking the issue and taking a closer look at how misinformation is propagated.”

Ward’s emergence as a central figure in DeSantis’ Covid-19 events has raised concerns among many in Florida’s medical community, some members of whom believe Ward is at best misguided and at worst a dangerous source of misinformation. In interviews with POLITICO, nine members of the association expressed concern that Ward was being given a nationwide platform. Everyone was granted anonymity because the FMA has a policy among its members not to publicly criticize other members.

Members of the group are wary of upsetting DeSantis, who the organization was endorsing for re-election in 2022. However, some doctors privately said they are concerned the governor is highlighting a “fringe” perspective in the medical community.

Ward — and other medics skeptical about vaccines and other protective measures like masks — says he simply wants to voice his views without fear of reprisals. He also doesn’t claim to be a public health expert, a criticism often leveled by critics who fear the governor is reinforcing the views of a dermatologist with no training in pandemic response.

“I am an advocate for free speech among medical professionals in the public policy debate and with patients,” Ward said in a statement to POLITICO. “It’s the only subject the governor’s office has ever asked for my opinion or thoughts on. At no point did the governor, his staff, the surgeon general, or his staff ask my thoughts on any of the issues related to Covid-19, masks, lockdowns, or the gunfire.”

“I happen to agree with them, as did tens of thousands of physicians in this state who just re-elected Governor DeSantis, but to call me his ‘medical expert of choice’ would be a gross inaccuracy,” he said.

In a statement, DeSantis press secretary Bryan Griffin defended presenting Ward at Tuesday’s event.

“We do not act on the political consensus of the population, but on evidence,” he said. “We thank Dr. Ward for lending his time and expertise to our press conference to ensure medical freedom is maintained in Florida.”

Most recently, DeSantis introduced Ward at a press conference in Panama City last week, where he again urged lawmakers to pass a proposal that would make it harder to punish doctors for controversial public statements. Democratic California Gov. Gavin Newsom recently signed legislation making spreading medical misinformation a type of “unprofessional conduct” — the opposite of what DeSantis wants.

“Governor DeSantis supports the strongest protections for free speech for physicians in America,” Ward said at the event. “I’m honored to be among the freest doctors caring for the freest patients in the freest state in America.”

In 2021, Ward took to social media to encourage parents to “train” their children to lie about their vaccination status and “play the system” by telling school officials they already had Covid-19 to avoid quarantine , if they were exposed. School officials have publicly blasted the comments, which Ward later said he felt “regret” for it. DeSantis has also included quotes from Ward in official press releases and appointed him to the board of directors of Northwest Florida State College last summer.

However, Ward is not without his supporters. After POLITICO reached out to him for comment, about half a dozen FMA members emailed POLITICO to defend the dermatologist.

“I have the privilege of working with Dr. Ward practicing in the same community and have shared numerous patients with him,” said Thomas Johnson, a Panama City oncologist. “He is an outstanding dermatologist and contrary to your uninformed opinion he is held in high esteem in our community and enjoys great support within the FMA which is growing over time.

“Jon has been a strong voice of caution in our community and state against this unprecedented medical tyranny regarding these COVD-19 vaccines and the treatment of COVID 19,” Johnson added.

However, many FMA members see the free speech argument as a cover to allow medical professionals like Ward to amplify politically-laced Covid-19 misinformation – even if it is seen as well outside of mainstream medical consensus.

“It is truly unfortunate that the pandemic and vaccine have caused such division not only between our political parties but also within medicine,” said a third FMA member. “It’s been a difficult few years practicing medicine during this unprecedented time.”

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