It’s a tough race.
But Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) of Florida has proven himself exceptional in a crowded field, taking arguably the most blasé and reckless approach to COVID-19 of any state executive during the latest phase of the pandemic.
The proof is in the pudding: Florida’s case rate has jumped 60 percent over the past two weeks.
A dive beneath the surface of that data further shows the real catastrophe that’s unfolding. After all, with vaccinations protecting most people from severe illness, case counts themselves only say so much. But Florida hospitalizations have also been steadily rising, hitting 14,787 on Tuesday.
ℹ Florida COVID-19 Update for August 10, 2021
? Total Confirmed Hospitalizations: 14,787 pic.twitter.com/T3thlJwHyL
— Florida Hospital Association (@FLHospitalAssn) August 10, 2021
And the state’s death toll currently stands at 39,965, according to state statistics. That’s less per capita than early-hit states like New Jersey and New York, but on a trend line that has continued to climb even after the virus was better understood and, critically, still is climbing, eight months after vaccines began to be distributed.
If Florida were a foreign country, the feds would consider banning travel from it, said Dr. Johnathan Reiner of the George Washington University School of Medicine, referring to the COVID-19 situation in the state this weekend.
“The viral load in Florida is so high right now, there are really only two places on the planet where it’s higher,” he told CNN. Those places, he added, are Botswana, and another U.S. state, Louisiana.
As all of this preventable carnage began, DeSantis shrugged it off with a series of orders that, epidemiologists say, poured gasoline on the already more contagious Delta variant. He has made national news this year by banning two mandates that public health officials have said are needed to keep hospitalizations down: vaccine and indoor mask requirements. The Florida government has prohibited businesses and government agencies from requiring vaccines, and has forbid schools from instituting mask requirements.
Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, told TPM in written responses to questions that allowing vaccine mandates for COVID-19 “would create two unequal classes of citizens based on vaccination status.”
“Though vaccinated people are less likely to get (and therefore to spread) COVID, it is a science-denying fallacy to believe that requiring vaccine passports means nobody will carry COVID into your institution,” the statement reads.
Pushaw added that while the Governor was not “encouraging people to get infected rather than vaccinated … it is a statement of fact, that millions of people have recovered from COVID and have antibodies – so they are naturally immune, and there is no public health justification to subject them to vaccine requirements.”
To be sure, DeSantis isn’t the only governor with a dismal COVID-19 track record. Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) of New York, who is not long for the political world, fell into scandal last year after issuing an order early in the pandemic that nursing homes be forced to accept COVID-19 patients discharged from hospitals, in a bid to free up extra beds for New York City’s surge.
But that was early in the pandemic, and Cuomo, for all his possibly career-ending faults and attempts to cover up the scandal, more or less stuck with public health guidance since the early outbreak.
Elsewhere, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has, similar to DeSantis, gotten lax on COVID-19 guidelines since vaccines became available. South Dakota’s Gov. Kristi Noem (R) has done the same.
But, unlike DeSantis, both acknowledged the problem and knew when it was time to cut the cord and ask for help. Abbott has refused to issue public health orders since vaccines became widely available, but is acknowledging the issue by asking for medical personnel to travel from less hard-hit parts of the U.S. to come assist his state. Noem, whose anti-mask theatrics are on par with those of DeSantis, did issue stay-at-home and other orders early in the pandemic.
Meanwhile, DeSantis has doubled down.
Take what may be DeSantis’s flagship COVID-19 policy, which earned him national attention: his recent order to ban schools from issuing mask mandates. He’s now threatening to withhold pay from school officials who flout the order and require masks to stop the spread of the virus.
“The children who have underlying conditions like diabetes and asthma, they can develop serious illnesses and end up in the hospital with pneumonia,” Dr. Aftab Khan, a Florida physician, told a Tampa broadcaster. “That’s not going to be enough because remember kids can take this virus back to their parents and grandparents and they can become sick if they are unvaccinated so it is a vicious cycle and everybody has to play their role.”
Pushaw, the DeSantis spokeswoman, said that California, under Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), had implemented state mask mandates and stay-at-home orders starting in March 2020, and asked whether those policies had “accelerated the devastating Los Angeles County winter surge in December 2020-Jan 2021, when CA was reporting 70k+ cases per day?”
She added that Florida, home to many elderly people, had one of the lowest age-adjusted death rates in the country.
Once again, a large amount of transmission and, crucially, hospitalization can be brought down through the use of COVID-19 vaccines, a relative medical miracle. The shots became available to all Floridians 18 and older on April 5.
War On Mandates
In addition to the ban on mask mandates, DeSantis has declared a quiet war on the vaccine on two fronts: by opposing vaccine mandates, and through boosting skeptics of the inoculations.
On the first, DeSantis issued an executive order and then signed a law in May banning any business or government entity from requiring proof of COVID-19 vaccination.
“In Florida, your personal choice regarding vaccinations will be protected and no business or government entity will be able to deny you services based on your decision,” DeSantis said in a statement accompanying the signing.
That ignores the element of social risk that is fundamental to the pandemic: as Florida hospitals are once again experiencing, overloaded ICUs mean fewer surgeries, harder-to-get treatment, and a lower standard of care.
Pushaw told TPM that the governor supported the vaccine rollout, saying, among other things, that DeSantis has done more than 50 vaccine awareness events in 27 counties around the state, and that the “efficacy and value” of the shots has been mentioned “1,600+ times in over 100 different public appearances” since November 2020.
“Being anti-mandate does not equate to being anti-vaccine,” Pushaw wrote. “Governor DeSantis has always encouraged Floridians to protect themselves by getting vaccinated.”
“If some people choose not to get the COVID-19 vaccine, that is their right, and they should not be barred from participating in everyday life,” Pushaw added.
It’s also resulted in a federal legal battle with Norwegian Cruises, which sued Florida’s Surgeon General and the head of its Department of Health last month in a bid to force the state to allow it to require vaccination to board its cruises.
The latest guidance from @CDCgov is a joke but what else did we expect from the Biden Administration? Vaccine passports infringe on our liberty and don't keep people safe. Our cruise industry is a major economic driver. Let our ships sail!https://t.co/TMrkA09QvN
— Ron DeSantis (@GovRonDeSantis) May 4, 2021
Florida fought that case, and lost this week.
DeSantis has taken it a step further, however.
Who Is At Fault?
In the responses to TPM, it was to double down on the policies, and suggest that masking and vaccination mandates could fuel skepticism of those two public health measures.
“In fact, government pushing vaccine passports/mandates might even fuel the fires of vaccine hesitancy/refusal,” the statement reads. “Many people who are hesitant to get vaccinated are also people who do not trust government authorities.”
Publicly, DeSantis has taken to blaming the outbreak on migrants coming across the southern border, elegantly finding a way to pin it both on immigrants and Joe Biden.
“Whatever variants there are around the world, they’re coming across that Southern border,” DeSantis said last week.
“Why don’t you get this border secure? Until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about COVID from you,” he added, referring to Biden.