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Sarasota hospital board bucks Ladapo's claims against COVID-19 vaccines

Members of the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board sit around a meeting room. A man speaks to them from a podium.
Stephanie Colombini
Although the Sarasota County Public Hospital Board didn't end up considering a proposal to adopt Florida Surgeon Joseph Ladapo's guidance against COVID-19 vaccines during a May 21 meeting, he was still the focus of much public comment. Sarasota resident Thomas Caffrey asserted the vaccines are "safe and effective for the majority of the population."

The board opted not to endorse Ladapo's assertions and voted on a different motion during Tuesday's meeting instead. It reaffirms the board's commitment "not to invade" patients' relationships with their doctors.

Sarasota Memorial Health Care System will not endorse Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo's guidance against COVID-19 vaccines on its website, as one of the county’s public hospital board members proposed earlier this year.

Victor Rohe, one of a few board members elected on a “medical freedom” platform in 2022, called in January for the health system to publish something online that supports Ladapo’s stance on mRNA vaccines, after the surgeon general advised to halt their use. Rohe said members of the community motioned him to do, but has not named them.

The board was expected to weigh the proposal during a public meeting on Tuesday, but instead agreed with Rohe ahead of time to move forward with a different motion instead.

It asserts that the board will “continue to respect” patients’ relationships with their doctors, and that it will try not to “invade” those relationships or mandate treatments, among other things.

The decision came after the board’s quality committee, which is compromised of all nine members, met earlier in the day, according to committee chair Patricia Maraia. They discussed whether to include COVID vaccine information on Sarasota Memorial’s website or take any further action regarding the vaccines, she said.

“The board asked our medical staff leadership for their guidance and also took into consideration the publicly available information regarding vaccine safety and efficacy as well as the input of those who spoke at public meetings, sent e-mails, and had conversations with Board members and administrative leaders.”

The meeting drew a crowd

A crowd of people sit in an auditorium
Stephanie Colombini
Dozens of public speakers showed up to the May 21 meeting prepared to address the proposal involving Ladapo's vaccine guidance. The man in the front row raising his hand was voicing support for the hospital board's decision not to consider that motion.

More than 100 members of the public had gathered in the Sarasota Memorial Hospital auditorium for the meeting prepared to speak for or against Rohe’s original proposal. Some on both sides expressed frustration that they were not informed about the change until the meeting. But many supported the end result.

Doctors affiliated with Sarasota Memorial, including gynecologist Washington Hill, expressed relief that the health system won’t be posting anything that embraces the surgeon general’s claims that the vaccines might affect people’s DNA and are "not appropriate for use in human beings." Ladapo made that statement in his January health department guidance.

“The Florida Surgeon General’s claims about this COVID vaccine are false,” said Hill, who added if the health system were to have posted “misinformation” spread by Ladapo on its website it would have been “dangerous to all patients.”

Ladapo, a longtime skeptic of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, raised concerns late last year to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention about "nucleic acid contaminants" in the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 mRNA vaccines, and the "unique risks posed by DNA integration."

Federal health officials refuted his claims that the vaccines affect DNA, and they reiterated their stance that the vaccines saved lives.

"The FDA stands firmly behind the safety, effectiveness and manufacturing quality of the approved and authorized COVID-19 vaccines, and respectfully disagrees with the Florida Surgeon General’s opinion,” FDA spokesperson Cherie Duvall-Jones said in an email to WUSF earlier this year.

Man speaks at a podium in front of hospital board members
Stephanie Colombini
Dr. Washington Hill, an OB-GYN in Sarasota, was glad to hear the hospital wasn't planning to adopt the state surgeon general's guidance against COVID-19 vaccines.

Any medical treatment poses risks that may outweigh the benefits for some people, argued Sarasota resident Thomas Caffrey, who said he worked in the pharmaceutical industry. But he agrees with federal health agencies that COVID vaccines are safe and effective for most individuals.

“Your responsibility is to keep the vast majority of the population safe,” Caffrey told the board. “An ill-informed opinion by a small group who appear not to know the data, to not understand the data or who are not willing to accept the data should not be the basis for deciding what’s good for the majority of people.”

Critics of the hospital board look to upcoming elections

But others in attendance disagreed with the board’s decision to table Rohe’s original proposal in lieu of the new motion, including Sally Nista, a self-described “grassroots conservative” who has criticized Sarasota Memorial in the past for its handling of the pandemic.

Echoing Ladapo’s concerns about the COVID-19 vaccines, Nista said she’s “grateful” for the surgeon general’s perspective and accused the board of not being transparent.

“Ultimately isn’t this hospital supposed to be about informing, educating and allowing the patient and doctor to make decisions about treatment, not just what the government tells us to do? Why then is it so difficult to share Dr. Ladapo’s recommendation?” Nista asked the board.

The motion approved on Tuesday also states that the board will “continue to advocate for retrospective analysis, research, and evidence-based recommendations from state and federal regulatory agencies,” and encourages patients and doctors to access all “credible” resources for information.

Woman speaks at a podium in front of a hospital board
Stephanie Colombini
Sally Nista, a vocal critic of Sarasota Memorial, questioned the hospital board's transparency. She called it "a problem" she hopes "to fix on August 20" during the primary election.

Another provision was initially included that involved forwarding concerns members of the public shared with the board about vaccines to the FDA, CDC and Florida Department of Health.

But members voted to remove it at Rohe’s behest after some public speakers opposed it, including Conni Brunni, head of the Sarasota chapter of Moms for Liberty, who called it a “threat.” Brunni accused board members of trying to punish those who reach out with vaccine concerns by "telling on them" to federal agencies.

“We want these external influencers out, O-U-T, of that relationship between ourselves and our doctor, that’s freedom,” Brunni said.

The board reminded the audience that it is also a government agency and that comments shared during meetings or in emails to members are already public record, but ultimately removed the provision.

The final motion ended up passing 8-1, with Maraia issuing the only dissenting vote because she disagreed with that amendment.

Attendees who disagreed with the board’s decision vowed to make their voices heard during a primary election on Aug. 20.

There are four open hospital board seats, three of which involve closed primaries. A fourth is open to all voters because only Republican candidates are running. Once again, several candidates are campaigning on a “medical freedom” platform.

The League of Women Voters of Sarasota County is scheduled to host a forum with the primary election hospital board candidates in July.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.
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