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Why Ladapo's withholding of Florida COVID vaccine data 'seems irresponsible at best'

Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Florida's surgeon general, appears with Gov. Ron DeSantis in November 2021.
Chris O'Meara
Dr. Joseph Ladapo, Florida's surgeon general, appears with Gov. Ron DeSantis in November 2021.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Chris O'Donnell discusses his findings from a report that key data was withheld when Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo recommended that young men not get the shot.

Scientists are calling on Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo to revise his recommendation that young men not get COVID-19 vaccines after public records revealed he withheld key information from an analysis when publishing that guidance.

Last October, Ladapo cited a state analysis that found young men had an elevated risk of cardiac-related death after getting the shot. Documents obtained by the Tampa Bay Times show the state also had data that found the risk was much higher after COVID infection, which was not in Ladapo's final report.

Health News Florida’s Stephanie Colombini talked with Christopher O’Donnell, the Times’ health and medicine reporter, about his findings:

I remember reporting on this last fall, and even in that published report, the authors briefly noted that the risk of heart-related death after COVID infection was higher than after vaccination. But there was no data; the surgeon general never mentioned it in his press release. And experts said, “There's got to be something missing.” You found that data. What did you learn?

Well, like you, I saw the same questions being asked by many experts, when this guidance came out in October — controversial guidance that runs counter to what the CDC and so many medical boards recommend. So I just thought there must be some earlier versions of this document. And I made a public records request from the Department of Health and eventually they provided the records.

What it showed is that the study was bigger than they had talked about, and they had looked at the impact of infection on heart-related deaths. And as hinted at in the report, the risk was far greater. Depending on the age group, it was between 5, 10 times greater than from the vaccine.

And you found multiple versions of the report.

Yeah, it seemed like they [health officials] were just trying to find a way to get the result that they wanted. And that's what some epidemiologists who've reviewed it said.

We posted all of the drafts online so readers can read it and make their own minds up. In every one, the conclusion was that COVID infection was a far greater risk than getting a vaccine. But in the published report, the one that FDOH published on their website, they had changed the wording of the conclusion. They had, for example, removed the words “much larger.”

Epidemiologists that I showed the drafts to — we showed them to four different epidemiologists, some from within Florida, some from outside — all agreed that the surgeon general should rescind his recommendation, that the data does not support it.

Have you gotten a response from the surgeon general?

Yes, we obviously reached out to the Department of Health and offered him an opportunity to do an interview. We sent specific questions about why was this data missed out. He didn't respond to the questions, but he did provide a statementsaying that he stands by his recommendation.

Talking about the risks of vaccination is important; people should be aware of them. But what's the danger of doing that without putting it in context of, "This is the risk of vaccination, but this is the risk of infection?" How does that provide a disservice to the public?

Yeah, I mean, the epidemiologists that looked at this were like, “This is wild,” like, “this is a smoking gun.” What they suspected when they looked at the published analysis was true, that there was more data that was kept from the public.

And that was a key point for those I spoke to, is that the surgeon general, who is the top health official in the state of Florida, has denied the public the information they need to make an informed decision about getting a vaccine for themselves and for their children. And that seems irresponsible at best.

If another scientist had potentially violated research ethics, they could face serious consequences. What have we seen in terms of response from the state or the University of Florida, where the surgeon general works as well?

Well one of the epidemiologists that I did interview and shared the drafts with was University of Florida epidemiologist Matt Hitchings, so he's a colleague of Dr. Ladapo. He said that it amounts to academic dishonesty.

When a lot of the questions were raised about the published draft, the University of Florida did conduct a kind of inquiry into whether, you know, he had done sufficiently accurate scientific research. They concluded that it was of questionable value, but because it was done in his role as surgeon general and not as a University of Florida professor, it fell outside their remit to do anything about. I don't know if University of Florida officials will reconsider that in light of this.

There was also a complaint made to the Department of Health inspector general about the accuracy of the published report that was investigated, according to a Politicostory, but the complainant didn't follow through.

So we're waiting to see if there is any repercussions that do come up. I mean, a lot of people in the academic world certainly think that it warrants it.

So what's next for your reporting as you follow this story?

I'm trying to get from the Department of Health emails between the surgeon general and the epidemiologists at the Department of Health who worked on this study. I'm wondering if there is any more information, or pushback against the surgeon general that he ignored, possibly. But I’m still waiting on those records.

Copyright 2023 WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.