Florida’s top health chief has largely been silent for months about the global pandemic and other public health issues, and Wednesday was the day that he would be participating at a legislative committee meeting.
As it turned out, the committee chairman wouldn’t allow members to ask questions to Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, causing a fiery exchange and one lawmaker calling the situation a “sham.”
“The (Florida) House as a body, we haven’t heard from the Surgeon General in 11 months since we last convened,” said State Rep. Carlos Smith, a Democrat representing part of Orange County.
“I am disappointed that he (Rivkees) can’t answer questions publicly and I think that it just contributes to the perception that this process is a sham.”
Rivkees did give a virtual presentation, introducing himself and explaining the Florida Department of Health’s efforts in tackling key health issues such as COVID-19. But that was it.
Rivkees was not able to take any questions from committee members after the presentation.
State Rep. William Robinson, Jr., is the chair of the committee and a Republican representing part of Manatee and Sarasota counties. He said in the meeting that there was no time for Rivkees to take questions, but lawmakers could contact Rivkees’ office to “schedule a meeting.”
In what became a fiery exchange over the issue, Rep. Smith said that “we deserve the opportunity to ask the Surgeon General simple questions about public health while he’s here.” But Robinson rejected taking questions.
“Can you explain to the members of the committee and to really our constituents why our Surgeon General can’t answer questions publicly?” Smith said. “I think they deserve answers.”
“I don’t really understand what’s more important than our ability to ask questions of our state Surgeon General,” Smith continued. “I think that I might be speaking for Democratic and Republican members of this committee who worked hard to be the voice for their communities.”
Robinson argued that the panel’s agenda made no room for questions to the state Surgeon General and reiterated to Smith that he could contact Rivkees’ office to “schedule a meeting.”
The origin of Rivkees’ reticence appears to go back to mid-April, when Rivkees was yanked from a press briefing because of comments he made about measures to curb the coronavirus that apparently didn’t square with Gov. Ron DeSantis’ message, according to reporting by POLITCO. “Rivkees, at the April briefing with reporters, had gone off message,” POLITICO wrote.
And since then, Rivkees has been mum about numerous public health issues, particularly about the new and aggressive COVID strains that are potentially more lethal. Neither DeSantis, Rivkees and the Florida Department of Health have been letting people know about these troubling strains.
Florida has been the leader of the so-called variant cases, with the first case on Dec. 31, 2020, in Martin County. The health department tweeted about that case at the time, and lawmakers and Martin County officials held a news conference Jan. 2, 2021 about the variant cases. But since then, nothing. No press releases, no news conferences, no tweets or Facebook posts.
In the committee meeting Wednesday, Rivkees reflected on Florida’s COVID-19 response from the onset of the pandemic, when safety measures were first implemented “to slow the spread” and boosting COVID-19 testing among residents.
“Our first cases of COVID-19 were diagnosed on March 1 of last year and this response has involved a massive multiagency and state response as well as involving local individuals,” Rivkees said.
“We have focused on protecting the elderly and vulnerable. We have supported the hospitals getting them important therapeutics.”
Though there have been challenges and concerns about the state’s vaccine rollout, Rivkees also boasted about the rollout strategy, saying Florida has been recognized by the federal government as an example for “other states to follow.”
“The strategy that we’ve implemented in Florida in terms of protecting those individuals who are 65 years of age and older is something we feel very strongly about,” Rivkees said.