Politicians are often derided as opportunists; but Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis recently took things to a new level—by killing his supporters for political gain.
In July, a virologist on the faculty of Florida Medical College warned that the highly transmissible Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus was about to cause a massive new wave of illness and death within the state’s still large unvaccinated population. “If you have a functioning set of lungs and no immunity, this virus will find you,” he said.
DeSantis seemed to face a stark decision: Whether to implement the public health measures necessary to mitigate the impact of the new variant, or to stand by and allow many to suffer unnecessary illness and death.
But he selected a third option: Actively fighting public health measures, employing the power of state government to encourage the transmission of the virus and embracing a purveyor of anti-vaccine myths, and other bogus medical claims.
While GOP voters have been among the primary victims of DeSantis’s offensive against public health, the governor appears to believe that his aggressively pro-COVID policies will enhance his chances of becoming the GOP presidential nominee in 2024—and he may be correct.
The human cost of DeSantis’ war on public health has been dramatic, and horrifying. From the end of June through October, Florida recorded 21,224 COVID deaths. That is massively more than the state suffered during previous waves of the pandemic that occurred before vaccines were widely available, and the toll is continuing to rise. As a result, Florida went from having the 17th to the 11th highest COVID death rate in the nation. Furthermore, Republicans in other states have embraced DeSantis’s pro-COVID stance, leading to similarly catastrophic outcomes in Texas and other states.
It is probably not a coincidence that DeSantis’ latest assault on public health accelerated after he was taunted by a dark horse rival for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination for being too concerned with the virus. During a CPAC gathering in July, South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem, who has notoriously employed her small state’s defiance of virus mitigation measures as a political calling card, mocked DeSantis for standing by as Florida municipalities closed schools and required masks during the initial height of the pandemic.
DeSantis thereafter has made sure that no GOP rival would be able to contend that they are more opposed to science-based public health measures than himself.
On Aug. 6, the board of Florida’s education department, dominated by DeSantis political appointees, passed an “emergency rule” barring elementary and high schools from mandating that students wear masks over parental objections. The rule, which flew in the face of CDC guidance, predictably contributed to outbreaks in public schools, requiring many students to quarantine.
But DeSantis and his cronies persisted, threatening to punish those school districts and administrators that sought to mitigate the risks to students, teachers and families through mask mandates by withholding state funding. DeSantis’ state health department also got into a tit-for-tat battle with the U.S. Department of Education. After the federal government indicated it would replace funds Florida withheld from those districts with mask mandates, Florida officials said that they would withhold additional funds from the districts to ensure that they were left with net shortfalls. The matter now appears moot, however, because DeSantis has succeeded in bullying all the state’s school districts into dropping their mask mandates.
DeSantis, however, has gone beyond denying funds to school districts, and began openly abetting those who threatened the lives of educators. During recent months, school officials throughout the country have become regular targets of death threats and other acts of harassment. The problem has been particularly serious in Florida. For example, protesters burned a large “FU” in the lawn of a Brevard County Florida school board member Jennifer Jenkins, while protesters brandished weapons near her home and menaced her and her daughter as she read a bedtime story. Protesters called her a pedophile and a false child abuse claim was filed against her with local authorities.
In response to these and other threats, Attorney General Merrick Garland issued a memo on Oct. 4 decrying “a disturbing spike in harassment, intimidation, and threats of violence against school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff who participate in the vital work of running our nation's public schools”, and stating that the DOJ “is steadfast in its commitment to protect all people in the United States from violence, threats of violence, and other forms of intimidation and harassment.”
Instead of joining the AG in what should have been an uncontroversial expression of support for school officials and teachers, however, DeSantis falsely claimed that, by decrying death threats, Garland and President Biden were seeking to “intimidate parents” and “squelch dissent.” Then, in an unmistakable echo of the actions decades ago of George Wallace and other Southern governors to federal government efforts to enforce desegregation decrees and civil rights laws, DeSantis vowed to defy the “feds” if the FBI had the temerity to investigate, for example, the threats, intimidation and vandalism suffered by Jenkins and her young daughter.
DeSantis, who always has his finger on the pulse of the most extreme elements of his party, also began pandering to the growing anti-vax constituency in the GOP. While he had previously touted his state’s purported early success in distributing COVID vaccines to the elderly, in June DeSantis brought suit challenging CDC regulations requiring cruise ships—which were the sites of some of the earliest COVID outbreaks outside of China, and are a major industry in Florida—to require proof of vaccinations. After courts stayed the CDC rules, DeSantis also tried to prevent cruise operators from implementing their own vaccine requirements, leading to further litigation.
As DeSantis pursued his multi-front war against public health measures, the Delta-driven surge that the Florida College of Medicine virologist had predicted was taking hold. DeSantis’ response, however, was not to rethink his approach, but instead to try to obscure the scale of the catastrophic situation that was unfolding.
Throughout the pandemic, DeSantis’ administration had been dogged with charges of trying to manipulate the state’s COVID statistics. One of his most prominent critics, whistleblower Rebekah Jones, was arrested by gun-wielding state troopers on questionable computer system “hacking” charges after she was fired from her job operating the state’s initially comprehensive COVID “dashboard.” In June, DeSantis’ health department abruptly terminated the state’s daily reporting of COVID statistics—just as the Delta variant was beginning to take hold.
Ultimately, the truth could not be hidden. By mid-August, the Florida Hospital Association was reporting more than 15,000 COVID hospitalizations, 50 percent more than at the state’s pre-vaccine peak about a year earlier, and a steadily rising death toll.
But DeSantis’ response was not to rethink his approach, and focus on increasing vaccinations and adopting masking protocols, measures which had allowed other states, such as previously hard-hit New York, to drastically limit the impact of the Delta variant. Instead, DeSantis decided to take another step toward making quack medicine and conspiracism the official policy of the state of Florida.
In September, the Florida College of Medicine, the same state medical school whose virologist had earlier warned that Florida was in the crosshairs of a Delta-driven surge, announced a curious new addition to its faculty, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, formerly of UCLA. Shortly thereafter, DeSantis announced that Ladapo was also his nominee to serve as Florida’s new surgeon general and, it was soon clear, as the chief spokesperson for DeSantis’ war on public health.
Ladapo, a cardiologist with no expertise in public health, respiratory diseases or epidemiology, had nonetheless put himself forward as a purported authority on COVID, and an advocate of scientifically unsupported, and indeed outright mendacious, public health claims.
Ladapo gained public attention when, as a member of a group calling itself “America’s Front Line Doctors,” he appeared at a DC press conference alongside a physician who claimed that gynecological problems are attributable to demon sperm and another doctor who went on to take part in the attack on the Capitol.
Ladapo also became known for penning op-eds in the Wall Street Journal claiming, against the vast weight of scientific evidence, that “wearing a mask has little or no effect on respiratory virus transmission,” and making misleading arguments against the effectiveness of vaccines.
Recently disclosed emails establish that the chair of the University of Florida Board of Trustees, DeSantis crony Mori Hosseini, ensured that Ladapo’s hiring by the medical school was fast-tracked in apparent anticipation of his being named surgeon general.
The university was also recently in the news after an administrator with connections to the medical school attempted to prevent several professors from providing expert testimony in support of challengers to voter suppression legislation that DeSantis recently succeeded in enacting (the university gave up on the gambit after it received public attention).
While Ladapo has not yet been confirmed as surgeon general, he has already begun to play the role of chief disseminator of public health disinformation for DeSantis. During appearances, some together with the governor, Ladapo has continued to feed anti-vax conspiracy theories, including baseless claims that COVID vaccines may be doing harm to pregnant women. He has also bolstered DeSantis’ effort to punish school districts for having the temerity to follow CDC masking guidance, grounded in Ladapo’s mendacious contention that mask wearing does not limit viral transmission.
Ladapo has also, quite notoriously, personally put his own anti-mask views into practice. During a meeting with a state senator, Tina Polsky, who was recently diagnosed with cancer, Ladapo and his entourage refused to wear masks, even after senator Polsky told them that she had a serious medical condition. Asked later to explain his reckless misconduct, Ladapo absurdly said that he is unable to effectively communicate while wearing a mask.
Polsky later stated that it seemed to her that Ladapo had prepared for the confrontation, suggesting that he was treating it as a trolling opportunity. Indeed, trolling, threats and intimidation have largely replaced any pretense of attention to public health concerns in DeSantis’ Florida, as they have in other states, as other Republican public officials have followed DeSantis’ anti-public health approach, with predictably disastrous results.
As The New York Times recently reported, the gap in death rates between counties that voted for Biden, and those that voted for Trump grew dramatically after vaccines became widely available. By October, the average death rate in Trump counties was three times higher than in Biden counties. Leading GOP anti-science figures like DeSantis have made it virtually impossible for Republican governors to survive in the party without following their reckless lead. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who only months ago was saying “it’s time to start blaming the unvaccinated folks” for her state’s catastrophic COVID losses, recently fell into line with DeSantis’s pro-COVID line by issuing an executive order “to fight overreaching COVID-19 vaccine mandates.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott has attempted to prevent private companies from requiring employees to get vaccinated, although Texas legislators have failed to enact his proposal. (DeSantis is currently attempting a similar legislative gambit, which is also facing unusual resistance from some in his state’s legislature.)
DeSantis is now trumpeting the fact that Florida’s COVID numbers have recently declined. The wave of infections and deaths that hit the unvaccinated in Florida is now hitting the unvaccinated in northern states, as colder weather causes people to spend more time indoors. But that, of course, does nothing to alter DeSantis’ recent record of avoidable deaths and illnesses; furthermore, the governor’s ongoing attack on public health leaves Florida particularly vulnerable to yet another COVID wave.
As Pfizer’s CEO Albert Bourla recently observed, those who spread vaccine disinformation “are criminals” and have “cost millions of lives.” The culpability of a public servant like DeSantis is all the greater, given that he has employed the full force of state government to mislead the public, and undermine the work of responsible public officials and medical professionals
If DeSantis succeeds in becoming his party’s standard bearer and Biden runs again, the nation will face a stark choice in the next presidential election: Between a president who implemented measures intended to move the nation beyond a catastrophically deadly pandemic and a governor who dragged his state and much of the country back into a largely avoidable morass of death.