Florida Democrats tell DeSantis to rescind job offer to COVID conspiracy theorist

©Miami Herald

US President Donald Trump (R) and Florida's governor Ron DeSantis hold a COVID-19 and storm preparedness roundtable in Belleair, Florida, July 31, 2020. - SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — Nearly all members of Florida’s Democratic congressional delegation sent a letter Thursday to Gov. Ron DeSantis demanding that he remove Kyle Lamb, an Ohio sports blogger who has spread coronavirus conspiracy theories on the internet, from his position as a data analyst at the governor’s office.

“We write to express our grave concerns with your decision to hire Kyle Lamb as a data analyst at the Florida State Office of Policy and Budget (OPB) and the implications of your decision on the health and safety of Florida’s residents as the COVID-19 pandemic continues,” the letter states. “Given that Lamb is an unqualified conspiracy theorist, his role as a member of your COVID-19 response staff is inexplicable and grossly irresponsible, we call on you to immediately remove Lamb from this critical role.”

The letter also accuses DeSantis of playing politics with the virus by hiring Lamb, who has supported unproven science espoused by DeSantis and President Donald Trump, at a time when the pandemic is “rapidly growing worse in Florida and nationally.”

It was signed by 10 of Florida’s 13 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, including South Florida’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson and Donna Shalala. (Shalala lost her reelection bid to Republican challenger Maria Elvira Salazar last week.)

Their concerns were echoed by prominent state Democrats interviewed by The Miami Herald Thursday. Several South Florida Republican members of Congress did not respond to requests for comment. Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis, also did not respond.

The Herald reported Tuesday that Lamb was offered an entry-level job as a data analyst at the governor’s office despite his limited experience and history of bucking established science on COVID-19. The role is not “exclusively” devoted to COVID-19, the governor’s office said.

Lamb, 40, worked for several years writing about Ohio State University sports for various blogs. But he has recently gained a Twitter following for amplifying conspiracy theories about COVID-19, including his belief that masks do not prevent the virus from spreading and that the pandemic might be part of a “biowar.” On an online sports message board, he also posted an unverified account of United Nations troops occupying a county fairgrounds in Ohio.

Lamb’s journey from sports blogger to coronavirus analyst took off in July when a guest on Fox News referenced his work. He tweeted on Nov. 6 that he had been hired to work at the governor’s office. Earlier that day, the Herald reported that someone in the Capitol had made COVID-19 death certificates from the state health department available to a different blogger known for spreading conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

DeSantis’ office has not released Lamb’s application, said when he would start the $40,000-per-year job, explained how he was hired, or revealed if there were other applicants for the position.

Public health experts and some of Lamb’s fellow sports bloggers from Ohio expressed shock that he would be hired for any job at the Capitol, calling his theories “laughable” and saying they believed him to be a “crackpot,” “unhinged,” and an “amateur, basement epidemiologist.”

The Herald story was picked up by The Washington Post, CNN, New York Post, the Guardian, Forbes and other national outlets.

As is true around the nation, the pandemic seems to be worsening in Florida.

Virtually all metrics to assess the virus in real time are on the rise — including daily tallies of reported cases, the percentage of tests coming back positive, and the number of people currently hospitalized with COVID-19, which breached 3,000 earlier this week for the first time since Sept. 9.

Tara Smith, an epidemiologist at Ohio’s Kent State University College of Public Health, said she wasn’t surprised that Lamb had amassed a following on Twitter, but the fact that his “armchair epidemiology” had landed him a government job was startling.

“This stuff is not easy to analyze,” Smith said, adding that even epidemiologists such as herself have to take additional courses in biostatistics to understand health data analysis.

“There are so many gaps in his education that I’m not even sure where to start for all the things that concern me,” she said. “He will be using data that will have the potential to influence policy in Florida around COVID. It’s very concerning.”

State Democrats seen as potential challengers to DeSantis in 2022 agreed that Lamb should not be working for the governor.

“Cases are skyrocketing, and the governor continues undermining science,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, the only Democrat holding statewide elected office. “Now he wants to hire a fringe sports blogger with no experience in epidemiology or data analysis just because he shares the governor’s negligent, misguided opinions?”

Anna Eskamani, an Orlando-area member of the Florida House of Representatives, said she considered Lamb “a threat to the health and safety of Floridians, especially in this era of misinformation, disinformation and fake news.”

“We need real leadership and real solutions … and all the governor can do is invest in amateurs to spread lies throughout the state,” Eskamani said. “It’s mind-boggling that this is Florida’s leadership right now and we cannot let this be the norm moving forward.”

The letter from the congressional Democrats also notes that in May DeSantis fired Rebekah Jones, a data scientist at the Florida Department of Health. Jones said she was terminated for refusing to manipulate COVID-19 data. The governor said she was insubordinate and had fabricated her claims.

“The firing of Jones, a qualified expert aiming to protect the well-being of Floridians, and the hiring of Kyle Lamb, an unqualified conspiracy theorist, leaves us with no choice,” the letter said, “but to question your hiring practices and conclude that you are putting the health and safety of Floridians at risk.”

Democrat Charlie Crist and South Florida’s Lois Frankel and Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, who was defeated by Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez, a Republican, did not sign the letter. A spokesman for Wasserman Schultz said several Democrats had their offices closed for Veterans Day when the letter was being sent around for signatures.

Sen. Rick Scott, Sen. Marco Rubio, Rep. Brian Mast and Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did Gimenez, Salazar or Rep. Matt Gaetz, a close ally of Trump and DeSantis. All are Republicans.

Lamb has not responded to interview requests from the Herald over the course of several days.

Reporters sent him questions asking him to address his positions on the coronavirus, including his stated belief that hydroxychloroquine, a drug touted by Trump, can treat the virus.

But late Wednesday night he tweeted in seeming response to the story that “I was alleged to have confirmed many things I did not confirm tonight. I was never given specific quotes and would not have done so if I were. But to say I’ve ever said (hydroxychloroquine) works is unbelievably false.”

Lamb deleted the tweet several minutes later.

The Herald found Lamb had previously said on Twitter that “doctors around the world have been saying (hydroxychloroquine) helps” and that he had criticized a retracted scientific study as being part of a conspiracy to discredit the drug’s effectiveness.

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(McClatchy D.C. staff writer Alex Daugherty contributed to this report.)

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©2020 Miami Herald