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How Ron DeSantis’s Covid response became the model of what not to do

“These waves are just something you have to deal with.”

Minority Leader McCarthy And Florida Gov. De Santis Hold Press Conference On Cuba
DeSantis speaks at at event on August 5.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It wasn’t that long ago that major media outlets were publishing stories proclaiming Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) “won the pandemic,” or deserved an apology from pundits and public health experts who have panned his laissez faire approach to the coronavirus. But those notions have aged poorly, as Florida struggles with spiking Covid-19 hospitalizations that DeSantis seems particularly unequipped to handle.

Comments DeSantis made to reporters on Wednesday in an attempt to downplay the grim reality that Florida currently leads the nation in Covid hospitalizations for children were case in point. Instead of implementing policies to address the issue, DeSantis banned mask mandates in schools. On Wednesday, he went as far as to suggest — citing no evidence other than anonymous anecdotes — that families of school-age children should be more worried about children contracting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

“COVID, I view as a very minor risk,” DeSantis said. “RSV is a little more serious and it just shows certain things that are focused on versus not. I’ve had doctors tell me that parents have come in with kids who were sick that have gotten a negative COVID test and a positive RSV and the parents were relieved at that.”

DeSantis’s remarks are at odds with data from his own state Department of Health showing that RSV cases have decreased in recent weeks and can currently be counted on one hand. By contrast, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported earlier this month that Florida had more than 30 Covid-stricken kids in the hospital each day between July 24 and 30.

That press conference came one day after DeSantis expressed confusion about officials from his own state requesting ventilators and smaller breathing devices from the federal government — equipment needed to prevent the state’s hospitals from becoming overwhelmed.

DeSantis — who last week admonished President Joe Biden, “why don’t you get this border secure and until you do that, I don’t want to hear a blip about Covid from you” — made comments on Tuesday to reporters seeming to indicate that he’s either oblivious to the ventilator request or trying to intentionally mislead people about it.

“I would honestly doubt that that’s true, but I’ll look because we have a lot of stuff that we stockpiled over the last year and a half through the Department of Emergency Management,” DeSantis said. “I’ve not had any requests across my desk. I have not been notified of that.”

A short time after, NBC reported not only that the request had been made, but that the federal government had already sent the breathing gear to Florida.

In a written response to an email sent by Vox, Weesam Khoury, communications director for the Florida Department of Health (DOH), claimed, “to be clear, there is not a shortage of ventilators in Florida,” adding that the request is “a proactive measure to ensure there are consistent resources available in the state stockpile for deployment” made by “health care facilities.”

“These waves are something you just have to deal with”

DeSantis, a former Congress member who distinguished himself during his 2018 gubernatorial run with his sycophantic praise of Trump, became something of a national conservative hero last year due to his hands-off approach. As my colleague German Lopez explained last year:

Florida was relatively late in closing down statewide, but it was also among the first to reopen. The state also reopened very quickly — letting restaurants, bars, and other businesses reopen, sometimes at high or full capacity, within weeks of ending its lockdown. That fast pace of reopening not only made it easier for people to infect each other with the coronavirus, but also made it much harder to evaluate, due to lags in coronavirus case reporting, if each phase of reopening was leading to uncontrollable growth in infections.

Relatively speaking, the Covid situation in Florida was far from a disaster until quite recently, and DeSantis has touted his ability to keep the state’s unemployment rate low throughout the pandemic. The state is still in the middle of the pack overall in terms of Covid deaths per 100,000 residents. But sadly, there’s no guarantee that will remain the case, as in recent weeks Florida has accounted for the second-highest number of Covid cases per capita in the US, and the highest number of deaths (141 per day).

Dr. Jonathan Reiner of the George Washington University School of Medicine said during a recent CNN appearance that if Florida were a foreign country, the federal government would consider banning travel to it.

“The viral load in Florida is so high right now, there are really only two places on the planet where it’s higher,” Reiner said. (Those two places: Botswana and Louisiana.)

In a Talking Points Memo piece arguing that DeSantis “is the nation’s worst Covid governor,” Josh Kovensky details how DeSantis enabled the ongoing Covid surge with his two-front war on mask mandates and vaccine mandates:

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.

Notably, DeSantis’s vaccine mandate prohibition includes cruise ships — a policy MSNBC’s Chris Hayes has characterized as the “single most deranged Covid policy we’ve seen.” But a federal judge earlier this week ruled that Florida can’t bar cruise companies from requiring proof of vaccination.

Likewise, DeSantis’s mask mandates ban is being challenged in court by parents and ignored by at least one school board. DeSantis has responded by saying the Florida Board of Education might withhold paychecks from board members and administrators who enforce mask mandates, which in turn has prompted the White House to suggest it might try to step in. (On Thursday, the DeSantis administration backed down from its threat to withhold pay.)

Biden indirectly took aim at DeSantis during a speech earlier this month, saying, “Just two states, Florida and Texas, account for one-third of all new Covid-19 cases in the entire country. We need leadership from everyone ... I say to these governors, please help, but if you aren’t going to help, at least get out of the way.”

On Thursday, news broke that just days into Florida’s school year, 440 students in Palm Beach County have already been asked to quarantine because of Covid-19 exposure. And Friday morning brought reports of four Broward County teachers dying of Covid in a single day.

But DeSantis seems undeterred.

“It’s airborne. It’s aerosolized,” he said of the delta variant on Thursday. “So we just have to understand when that’s happening these waves are something you just have to deal with.”

DeSantis Press Secretary Christina Pushaw dismissed research linking mask mandates to reduced Covid-19 spread in an email to Vox, writing, “Governor DeSantis will continue to protect individual rights from unscientific mandates promoted by overreaching politicians who are desperate to give the appearance of ‘doing something’ even if it has no effect.”

DeSantis doesn’t seem big on self-reflection

What explains DeSantis’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the gravity of the Florida Covid case spike and stop working against public health best practices? The answer to that question is up for debate, but one factor may be a belief that reversing course would undermine his brand as the governor who stuck it to the libs by thumbing his nose at the Dr. Faucis of the world. That brand has established DeSantis as the non-Trump frontrunner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

After all, it was just last month that DeSantis was selling “Don’t Fauci My Florida” merchandise on his website.

As Fauci has conducted local and national interviews obliquely criticizing DeSantis’s policies, DeSantis has continued to downplay the surge, saying last week that “this is our COVID season.” Meanwhile, hospitals in the state are reporting “unprecedented” wait times for beds.

Press Secretary Pushaw pointed to the fact that Covid-19 hospitalizations dipped this week in the Jacksonville area, writing to Vox, “COVID cases in the areas of the state that were earliest hit in this wave, such as Jacksonville, have already started their decline as predicted — without any government authority imposing non-pharmaceutical interventions.”

“Governor DeSantis continues to support vaccination for Covid-19 as well as promoting monoclonal antibody treatment for anyone who tests positive and is at risk of severe illness from Covid-19,” she continued.

It’s possible that as the news grows more dire, Floridians will adjust their behavior and/or get vaccinated if they haven’t already, prompting new cases to begin trending down again. But even in that scenario, the fact remains that by stubbornly working at cross-purposes with public health experts, DeSantis has made Florida’s Covid-19 problem worse than it had to be.

Update, August 13, 4:40 pm: Updated to include comment from DeSantis’s office and the Florida Department of Health.