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Landry names surgeon general, gives him duties once held by state health officer

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BATON ROUGE — Gov. Jeff Landry named a state surgeon general Tuesday and gave him duties previously assigned to a state health officer who once questioned why a vaccine skeptic who appeared with Landry at a legislative hearing was given a platform to speak.

Current Health Secretary Dr. Ralph Abraham will be surgeon general, and Undersecretary Michael Harrington will replace Abraham, Landry said at a news conference Tuesday. Abraham is a former congressman. 

The surgeon general and department secretary are "co-equal" in the agency's flowchart. The surgeon general will create health policy, advocate for wellness and disease prevention and work with other agencies and institutions to improve "health outcomes" in the state, Landry's office said.

The changes, approved by lawmakers, come after Landry clashed with health officials during the coronavirus pandemic. 

In November 2020, before a vaccine was available, Landry sided with House Republicans who believed a petition could force Gov. John Bel Edwards to end a public health emergency. When a state judge rejected their petition, Landry said the ruling "turns Louisiana into a dictatorship under King Edwards." The state Supreme Court later overturned the judge, but the matter was largely moot by then. 

Dr. Joe Kanter was named state health officer in January 2021, as vaccines were just rolling out. The Health Department believed broad acceptance of the vaccinations would stem the virus' spread, while Landry opposed mandatory vaccinations. Landry also shared a letter with parents showing them how to seek religious or philosophical exemptions to masking requirements in schools, and appeared at a legislative hearing with vaccine-skeptic Robert Kennedy Jr.

At the hearing, Kanter asked why Kennedy was given a platform to provide "cherry-picked" data to challenge vaccination directives.

"He has done the exact same thing for countless vaccines,” Kanter said at the time, according to the Louisiana Illuminator. "He has been at the center of pieces of myths and misinformation on other vaccines that have really caused families harm.”

Harrington is a former hospital administrator.
Kanter stepped down as state health officer six weeks after Landry took office.

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