WINTER HAVEN, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo are speaking in Winter Haven about COVID-19 response across the country.

The event had signage for “3 Years to Slow the Response,” with DeSantis providing commentary, similar to previous speeches, criticizing how the United States government had responded to the pandemic, focused on workforce, inflation, supply chain, and mental health issues. School lockdowns were also a topic of concern for him, with the governor highlighting how Florida had “bucked” the federal strategy and had better educational outcomes.

“They were wrong about almost everything,” DeSantis said about federal response to COVID-19. “They were wrong about lockdowns, remember they said that was what you needed to do to stop COVID.”

The governor said Florida had been “attacked relentlessly,” over its policies, even as the policies of other areas “did not work, and were destructive” in the states that used them.

“In reality, it had very minimal impact on that, but it had a huge impact on the wellbeing of our youth,” DeSantis said. “And in Florida we went a different way on that. But those school closures were bad, and I remember April of 2020, I was like, you know, I don’t know that remote school was going to work.”

He said the response to his decisions for responding to COVID-19 was a “torrent of abuse.” He said forced masking was also an incorrect response, saying the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had also been wrong about natural immunity, calling it “inferior to mRNA vaccines, which was not based on solid data.”

DeSantis said the reason for this incorrect policy was out of a move to preserve the current status quo and infrastructure, and to “control” the behavior Americans. He said those choices had hurt the agency’s credibility.

“It’s all about politics,” said Dr. Susan MacManus, professor emerita at University of South Florida and political expert.

If DeSantis were to announce a candidacy for president, his main opponent is expected to be former President Donald Trump.

In January, President Trump said DeSantis was trying to “rewrite history.”

“DeSantis wants to start this discussion with ‘Hey, we opened up. Our recovery was faster than any other state. Trump wants to look back at the very beginning of COVID and say , ‘Well you just did like everyone else’,” said Dr. MacManus.

The back and forth, Dr. MacManus said, does not paint a pretty picture for Republicans.

“The two frontrunners are basically tossing accusations against each other which only feeds into some Republicans’ fear that it will just lead to a Biden reelection,” she said.

On March 10, in response to a February letter from Ladapo, federal agencies pushed back on the state surgeon general’s claims of vaccination risks from the mRNA vaccines.

Continuing his commentary, DeSantis took issue with how the federal government had made exceptions to differing reactions to lockdown protests and racial justice protests during the pandemic, specifically saying that it had “really took the mask off” with how they responded to each type.

“Presumably this was a woke virus,” DeSantis said. “Clearly it’s absurd that you would take that position from a scientific perspective, and that was really showing that this is more about them advancing an agenda and asserting control.”

The governor said even three years later, Florida was still recovering from those actions and decisions, highlighting statements by the federal government and Dr. Anthony Fauci’s “collusion with Big Tech,” abusing their power to stifle dissent.

It is worth noting that the federal government is expected to officially end its COVID protocols and response strategies in early May. As he has in recent weeks, DeSantis criticized blocks on tennis player Novak Djokovic to enter the country for a tournament over his COVID vaccination status.

The governor criticized vaccinations for babies and a move to reinstate the mask mandate for air travelers, saying that there was not data to support it from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, calling it “sparse” and that Florida had led the dissent, refusing to be put into a “Faucian dystopia.”

After continuing commentary on that thread of issues with federal policy, and highlighting how Florida had taken its own steps to protect jobs and prevent vaccine mandates, DeSantis questioned the efficacy of the vaccines and said the government had tried to coerce compliance instead.

DeSantis said America would be living with the consequence of pandemic response for years to come, saying there was “no free lunch” and that inflation would likely stay elevated for a long while. Then he introduced Ladapo.

Ladapo said he was grateful for DeSantis standing his ground over COVID response, when “everyone was having a spasm over the simplest drop of common sense,” and that Floridians were grateful as well.

“It’s important to keep in perspective exactly what happened, because one of the things the media, they’re just so brilliant, it’s almost, it’s so sinister how good they are at this,” Ladapo said. “At recreating reality.”

Referring to recent coverage of his letter to the CDC and FDA about vaccine safety, “or frankly their lackthereof,” Ladapo said many news stations had carried the response, and that “to come back to reality a little bit,” he highlighted his background.

“I went to med school, I got a PhD. in research science when I was in med school, I went to Harvard,” Ladapo detailed. “Not as cool as it used to be, my wife and I were talking on the way up here, we’re not even sure we would send our kids there, they’re indoctrination factories.”

Continuing, he said he was a tenured faculty member at the University of California, Los Angeles, and now he was a tenured faculty member of the University of Florida, and that he “knew what he was talking about.”

He continued his line of discussion, praising how Florida’s leaders had responded to the pandemic.

“The reality is, I don’t even care about vindication, I care about doing what’s right, the reality is that Florida and Gov. DeSantis’ leadership, and the decisions he made for this state, the direction he went, was absolutely correct,” Ladapo said. “It was the right decision to get the kids back in school. It was harmful to the kids to keep them out of school. It was the right decision to encourage people to do what they want for their tolerance of risk, for their values, who they wanted to spend time with. That was the right decision. The bill has come due has come for a lot of those decisions.”

Ladapo returned to the topic of the media, saying that as an industry, “they work overtime to rewrite reality, to make people believe that what is happening isn’t actually happening,” in reference to the “terrible” safety profile of the mRNA vaccines for COVID-19.

“Unfortunately, we have a CDC and FDA who just, the most consistent thing they’ve done is deny the truth, whether it was pushing masks? They did squat, they had very little benefit,” Ladapo said. “They did not have any substantial impact, no benefit. Pushing masks, pushing vaccines in little kids, all of these low-value divisive policies, they did, you look at the truth.”

He referenced a study in Lancet, a medical publication, that showed reducing efficacy of vaccinations as time goes on, and that the “magnitude of that negativity” increase over time, meaning that “people who receive that vaccine are more likely to contract COVID-19 after seven months than the people who did not.”

Ladapo said the CDC and FDA have not mentioned that, repeating that Fauci, Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, and Dr. Robert Califf at the FDA were “geniuses at rewriting reality,” but that the officials he named had made decisions on unknown priorities, but that it was an agenda, and not for Americans’ wellbeing.

“We are vindicated, whether people want to recognize that or not, the decisions that we made, prioritizing the fact that people were people and that humans should be respected for their preferences and their ability to make decisions,” Ladapo said. “Those were the right things to do, were vindicated, and the fight isn’t over. Yes we’re here talking about COVID-19, but the rewriting of reality to control your behavior and to control your thoughts and beliefs, is an ongoing battle.”

Ladapo then turned to the topic of gender dysphoria, describing it as another battlefront. He said that experimental treatments, including removal of sex organs and hormone blockers, was a risk, criticizing news coverage by NBC News, The Associated Press, CBS News, and the New York Times “like to say every scientific body in the United States” supports those treatments, and contrasted it with countries in Europe that have “pulled back” on them instead.

“They’re finding that essentially the risks outweigh the benefits,” Ladapo said. “Do any of these articles ever mention that? No. Because they’re not prioritizing the truth. I don’t know whose agenda that is, but it’s not the agenda of you, of me, or our children. So yes, it’s victory, but the battle is still ongoing. It’s a battle over our thoughts and beliefs.”

Ladapo said it was the state’s job to supply residents “with truth.” After the surgeon general finished speaking, DeSantis returned to the podium, claiming that dissent was not allowed during COVID, and people who dissented were unable to speak up or were silenced.

Then DeSantis introduced a variety of Florida residents, parents, and business owners to speak on the same topic, parental choice, and lockdown issues during the pandemic and its impact on community and culture for students.

When the governor returned, he started talking about the Florida High School Athletic Association, focusing on its provisions during COVID and saying they had been wrong.

He said that Florida had taken action to ensure the “scholastic sports season” was still possible at the time. DeSantis also discussed a variety of sports functions during COVID that Florida had prioritized in order to keep things open and performing. He then introduced a firefighter to discuss the battle over vaccination mandates in Orange County.

The firefighter, Greg Meeks, said first responders had worked during COVID even before vaccines were available, and having contracted the virus, many had natural immunity. When the county mandate was enacted, Meeks said they pushed back on it, though some were fired. In response, Meeks worked to get his job back, referencing how he’d work with the governor’s office for help.

“I heard about religious exemption reforms. Then I reached out. Found out that Orange County actually rejected religious exemption forms,” Meeks said. “I did my research and learned that was unconstitutional. So I called them myself and heard they were denying religious exemption forms.”

When he asked why, Meeks said the county had rejected them for improper submission, and that when he asked for guidance on how to properly submit it, he was told they would not, so that “everyone” wouldn’t use one instead of getting the vaccine.

After resubmitting the form, Meeks said the issue was going through court and that firefighters had “fought tooth and nail” to keep their jobs and support their families. He praised state efforts to protect their jobs with legislation and executive action, but that they were still fighting.

DeSantis returned to speak on stage after Meeks, saying that the U.S. House of Representatives was working on ways to make Washington be more accountable over COVID. Specifically, DeSantis said Fauci needed to be held accountable for his actions and decisions during the pandemic. He also said Florida had been responsible for dragging the U.S. out of the strategy.

He took questions after repeating some of his earlier commentary on vaccine risks and bad federal policies.

Responding to a question about vaccine interactions with more traditional vaccinations, DeSantis said Ladapo was looking into the issue, but said that it was wrong to give an infant a COVID vaccine.

Referring to Florida’s temporary block on elective procedures amid the pandemic, DeSantis said initial models were “scary” but that Florida had ended that block more quickly because of patients in the state. DeSantis said mobile hospitals and licensed beds were ready should the state’s medical centers have needed assistance in taking patients, but that the need had not materialized.

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