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'Grossly irresponsible': Florida congresswoman blasts surgeon general over measles outbreak

Woman speaks during a meeting
Andrew Harnik
Pool AP
FILE Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., speaks during a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing on gun violence on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, June 8, 2022.

A South Florida congresswoman is calling for the state’s controversial surgeon general to be ousted over his handling of a measles outbreak in Broward County.

Dr. Joseph Ladapo, known for his outspoken skepticism toward the COVID-19 vaccine, sent a letter last week to parents at Manatee Bay Elementary School in Weston where seven students have contracted measles — but refused to declare a public health emergency. A total of nine people in Broward have so far been confirmed with the highly contagious and potentially deadly virus, according to state health officials.

“Florida’s surgeon general stands in stark contrast to America's proud legacy of bipartisan public health success,” said U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (FL-25). “(Joseph) Ladapo instead politicizes public health and peddles risky freedom of choice rhetoric that fuels vaccine hesitancy and downplays the public and personal health necessity for vaccination.”

“His decision not to declare a public health emergency, and to leave all of the burden of deciding whether to send children to school on parents is grossly irresponsible,” Wasserman Schultz added, during a press conference at her Sunrise office Tuesday.

READ MORE: Public health experts raise the alarm in South Florida over a measles outbreak

Such outbreaks are rare in the United States, though reported cases have spiked from 58 for all of 2023 to 35 already this year, according to the Associated Press.

While it is normally recommended that unvaccinated students who haven’t previously had the disease be kept home for three weeks — because of the high likelihood they will be infected — Ladapo’s letter notes that the state won’t turn that recommendation into a mandate.

“Due to the high immunity rate in the community, as well as the burden on families and educational cost of healthy children missing school, (the state health department) is deferring to parents or guardians to make decisions about school attendance,” Ladapo wrote to parents at the Weston school.

He was appointed by Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis in September 2021, with whom he shares an opposition to the COVID-19 vaccine, mask mandates and school closures. The Governor’s Office has not responded to an email sent by WLRN requesting comment.

In this file photo, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo gestures as speaks to supporters and members of the media before a bill signing by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Fla.
Chris O'Meara
In this file photo, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo gestures as speaks to supporters and members of the media before a bill signing by Gov. Ron DeSantis on Nov. 18, 2021, in Brandon, Fla.

The Broward County school district said that 33 of Manatee Bay’s 1,067 students don’t have at least one shot of the two-dose measles vaccine.

Ladapo’s wording contradicts Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendations, which tell school officials that unvaccinated children “must be excluded” for three weeks. States are not required to follow those recommendations, however.

In calling for his resignation or termination, Wasserman Schultz said Lapado “didn't even use the most basic of public health guidance and say, ‘all children should be vaccinated against measles with two vaccinations.’”

Outbreak spreads

The outbreak started at the school just a week ago with four cases. So far, nine children in Broward County, including seven students at Manatee Bay Elementary School in Weston, have been diagnosed with measles. Over the weekend, another case was reported on the state’s disease surveillance page, in Polk County, bringing the total to 10 cases.

Wasserman Schultz was joined by Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, the Chair of the Epidemiology Department at Florida International University. She explained the disease was once a “major killer” in the U.S. until the 1960s when a vaccine was created.

Measles causes fever, cough, runny nose and red eyes. Those symptoms are followed by a blotchy rash that starts on the head and works its way down. It causes hospitalization on average in about one in five people, brain damage in about one in a thousand people and death in about one in 1000 people of the people who are infected, according to Trepka.

It is recommended that all people have two doses of the measles vaccine, according to Trepka. To avoid unintentionally spreading the disease, she also recommended that people who think they may have contracted it call a doctor and not show up to an emergency room.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.

Gerard Albert III covers Broward County. He is a former WLRN intern who graduated from Florida International University. He can be reached atgalbert@wlrnnews.org
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