Do We Really Want a President DeSantis Setting COVID Policy?
Putting a nation’s lives in his hands would be a wildly dangerous bet.
THERE ARE COUNTLESS REASONS WHY Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis should not get anywhere near the Oval Office. Maybe the latest outrage will cut through the fog of tribal war. I speak, of course, of the governor and his seriously strange surgeon general telling Floridians that they should not get the new COVID shot unless they’re over 65. This is a matter of life and death for all of us, and yet DeSantis is using it as a strategy to “regain his middle-finger bona fides” in the 2024 Republican primary race, as political and legal analyst Jay Kuo puts it.
The updated vaccine has passed muster with both the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC recommends it for everyone over six months old, based on data showing that universal vaccination will reduce hospitalizations, deaths, and Long COVID. The agency says “hundreds of millions of people have safely received a COVID-19 vaccine” under “the most intense safety monitoring in U.S. history.”
Never mind all that. “We will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use Floridians as guinea pigs for mRNA jabs that have not been proven to be safe or effective,” DeSantis said last week. “Jabs” that in the governor’s expert opinion have been “hastily approved.” Listen to us, he says, not those federal bureaucrats trying to run your life.
By “we,” he means himself and Dr. Joseph Ladapo, the Florida surgeon general whose advice and claims have drawn pushback from the CDC and his predecessor in Florida, and who personally altered key findings of a scientific analysis to portray the Moderna and Pfizer COVID vaccines, which use mRNA technology, as dangerous for young men.
The assertion contradicted evidence and federal guidance; one researcher called it “a lie.” The analysis was released by Ladapo’s own department rather than being published in a scientific journal, and Ladapo’s own mentor said that “if I was a reviewer at a journal, I would recommend rejecting” it.
Although Ladapo’s time in office has been marked by many other controversies—he also backed unproven COVID treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin—it is his stance on vaccination that has rightly drawn the most criticism. Earlier this year, a faculty committee at the University of Florida College of Medicine, where Ladapo was handed a tenured position at the same time he was appointed state surgeon general, found that his “seriously flawed” vaccination analysis may have violated the university’s rules for research integrity.
DESANTIS IS ALREADY ALARMING health care workers with a proposal to ban mask mandates, even in “health care settings.” This month he attacked the “Trump-Fauci White House” for, apparently, trying to follow science when a terrifying new virus was hospitalizing and killing so many people that hospitals ran out of supplies, beds for patients, and space for the dead.
Of course, there is plenty of room for criticizing the Trump administration on its COVID policy. Dr. Anthony Fauci, then director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, tried to follow the evolving science. But then-President Trump’s commitment to science waxed and waned. To his credit, Operation Warp Speed produced effective vaccines in record time. But Trump’s speculating about “cures” like ultraviolet light beams, injections of disinfectant, and the anti-malaria drugs hydroxychloroquine and cloroquine, while downplaying the pandemic, masking, social distancing and the vaccine, did his supporters no favors.
“My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only preexisting condition was trusting Donald Trump, and for that, he paid with his life,” Kristin Urquiza said in a memorable speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. She described how in May 2020, when Arizona lifted its lockdown, her father went to a karaoke bar with friends after hearing assurances from Trump about the state of the pandemic. A few weeks later her father was on a ventilator and “he died alone in the ICU with a nurse holding his hand.”
Statistics confirm some grim political math. Right around the time Urquiza’s dad died, masking and lockdowns were curbing COVID outbreaks in blue states while cases were surging in red states without such policies. The ideological vaccination gap that came later also proved deadly.
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Vaccine denialism in the recent past has cut across the board—from liberals and hippies to Orthodox Jews, conservative Amish sects, and religious conservatives opposed to the HPV vaccine. Some people wrongly believe vaccines can cause autism, although numerous studies show there is no connection (and a 1998 study of 12 children that had suggested a link was not only retracted, the doctor who wrote it lost his medical license). Democrats now have their own celebrity vaccine denier in presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. But he’s drawing more money and higher favorable ratings from Republicans.
REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES of the past quarter century have taken some notable detours into evolution, climate change, and trust in science vs. religion. In a May 2007 debate, for instance, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee raised their hands when a moderator asked if anyone onstage did not believe in evolution.
This inspired me to suggest some evolution questions for the next USA Today-Gallup poll, and the results clarified the politics of the issue. Most Republicans doubted the well-established theory of evolution, and more Americans accepted creationism than evolution. The ground had not shifted much by 2011 when GOP candidate Jon Huntsman, then a former Utah governor and Obama administration ambassador to China, won the internet with this tweet: “To be clear. I believe in evolution and trust scientists on global warming. Call me crazy.”
Well, call me crazy, but at this point it’s clear from statistics and our own lives that COVID vaccines are, in the words of a pair of Johns Hopkins health experts, “very safe and very effective at preventing serious or fatal cases of COVID-19,” while the risk of serious side effects is “very small.” The latest COVID shot was painstakingly developed to keep people healthy in the face of new variants and a case surge that has already begun. But DeSantis is stigmatizing, banning, and weaponizing precautions and protections that can prevent or minimize COVID risks. In May, he signed laws that he says make Florida a bastion of “medical freedom.” Among other things, they permanently ban COVID vaccine and mask requirements in Florida schools and businesses.
There are many ironies in the DeSantis view of freedom, which is that some “freedoms” are more equal than others (see: classroom speech, corporate speech, and certain types of health care). But let’s zoom in on the new COVID “freedoms.” Getting vaccinated (and masking if there’s elevated risk) is what drives down cases, contains seasonal virus surges, and allows us to go about our normal lives. Vaccines protect not just the vaccinated, but also frail individuals and a strained health care system. Getting the shot is the best way to achieve and sustain freedom—the freedom to go to work or school, socialize with friends, attend group events, stay well, and help others stay that way, too.
COVID is a monster of a disease. Anyone can get it, and early in the pandemic, anyone did. Amanda Kloots’s unsparing public account of her husband’s illness and death is a contemporaneous reminder of all that. Nick Cordero was not old or frail. He was 41 and healthy, a Broadway actor with a young child, when he contracted COVID-19. It was in spring 2020, long before vaccines were available. He went to the ER on March 30 and by April 1 was intubated on a ventilator. A stopped heart, blood clots, ministrokes, dialysis, holes in his lungs, tracheostomy, sepsis, leg amputation, a pacemaker—Kloots shared graphic details that made it impossible to ignore the agonizing, ruthless progress of this virus. Cordero died on July 5, 2020.
I know the DeSantis-Ladapo performance on COVID is not as entertaining as Rep. Lauren Boebert getting kicked out of a Beetlejuice performance for singing, dancing, vaping, and fondling her boyfriend; a Democratic state Senate candidate in Virginia livestreaming sex with her husband online; South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem (a potential Trump VP) reportedly having a long-running extramarital affair with former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski; or even the daily drama of the many, many Trump trials.
Yet COVID is still infecting people and some of them are dying from it. The cumulative toll is more than 103 million U.S. cases so far, and more than 1.1 million deaths.
The resurgence of vaccine denialism from a man who runs a huge state and wants to run the country demands our attention. DeSantis (and maybe at some point Trump) will soon be on a national debate stage trashing the medical establishment and persuading a few million people that vaccines are an evil government plot to rob them of their rights and freedoms. We can’t forget where we were and how far we’ve come, thanks to science. And we can’t put our lives in the hands of people like this.