The Vaccine-Hesitant Coach Who Died as DeSantis Hawked ‘Keep Florida Free’ Merch
Coach Guy Thomas should have had a leader assuring him that the vaccine is not only safe but necessary—not profiting off anti-Fauci gear as cases surged again and he lay dying.
A beloved Florida track coach was nearing the end of a monthlong fight against COVID-19 when Gov. Ron DeSantis began selling a new line of T-shirts and beverage coolers seeking to capitalize on mistrust of science and mitigation measures.
“DON’T FAUCI MY FLORIDA,” read the message on the $21 T-shirts and beverage coolers priced $12 for a set of two.
The campaign merchandise went on sale with a “NEW TODAY” online announcement on July 12. That was one day before Dunbar High School track coach Guy Thomas succumbed to the virus that Dr. Anthony Fauci and his fellow infectious disease experts have desperately sought to contain.
As director of National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has modified his advice at times during the pandemic as we came to a better understanding of COVID-19. But his ultimate goal has always been to reduce the spread and save lives.
DeSantis and others who oppose Fauci do so in the name of personal freedom, ignoring that wearing a mask and enforcing social distancing and getting vaccinated are intended to protect others as well as yourself. Liberty does not mean you are entitled to endanger other people. Nothing could be more un-American.
At a time of national emergency, when our political leaders should have been urging us to act for the common good, DeSantis and too many others followed former President Donald Trump’s example in seeking political gain by minimizing the threat. They encouraged us to ignore the experts.
When they cast unreasoning doubt on Fauci and his colleagues, Trump and DeSantis and the rest were encouraging a general distrust of science and reinforcing the wariness some of us experienced at the prospect of receiving a new vaccine. Coach Thomas was among the hesitant and instead of a president who grabbed shots only on the sly while leaving office and a governor who spouts off against “vaccine passports,” he should have had leaders assuring him that the vaccine is not only safe but necessary. They should have been telling him that whatever else he had to do, he should have made getting the shot a priority.
Thomas was blessed by one true leader in the person of Carl Burnside, the longtime Dunbar High School principal. His views on the COVID-19 vaccine are non-partisan and unadorned.
“I don’t see it as a political issue,” he told The Daily Beast. “I see it as a life issue.”
Burnside spent weeks trying to convince Thomas to get vaccinated.
“He was hesitant and he was always so busy working with kids,” Burnside told The Daily Beast.
Thomas remained hesitant even as he continued to prove himself to be one of the school’s treasures. He saw things in students that they themselves failed to see.
“His ability to assess kids and see their potential was phenomenal,” Burnside told The Daily Beast.
By example, Thomas was able to inspire them to give it their all.
“He a very strong work ethic, which transferred over to his kids,” Burnside said. “He could motivate them, oh my God!”
Thomas taught them the real challenge was to summon what was best in themselves, whoever the opponent might be, on and off the field.
“While he pushed the kids to win, he made sure they understood it wasn’t just about winning,” Burnside said.
He sought to translate track into college scholarships and urged his kids to focus on their studies. Here, too, he led by example, continuing his own education by studying toward a Ph.D.
And just as Thomas never gave up on a kid, Burnside did not give up on urging him to get the shot. Burnside kept at it after DeSantis issued an executive order on May 3 eliminating all local COVID-19 restrictions.
Toward the end of the second week in May, Burnside finally succeeded. Thomas made an appointment to get vaccinated.
But a day or two before he was to have gotten his first shot, Thomas fell ill and tested positive for COVID-19. He was hospitalized in critical condition when DeSantis issued a June 3 reprieve for anyone who had been cited for ignoring COVID-19 restrictions before he nixed them all as “unscientific.”
Early June was also when Thomas went into a comatose state. He had until then been working the phone from his hospital bed, trying to secure a college scholarship for a student.
Just after 10 a.m. on Tuesday, Thomas died. He was 51. He left his wife, India, and four children. The high school and the surrounding community were stunned that somebody in such top physical condition had fallen victim to the virus.
“It hit hard,” Burnside said. “He was an athletic guy. When they see that with him, it resonates.”
In death, Thomas was imparting a final lesson.
“I think what it says is COVID is not over,” Burnside said.
Meanwhile, COVID-19 cases are up 219 percent over the past two weeks in Florida. Hospitalizations are up 57 percent, deaths 49 percent.
And the governor’s campaign continues to hawk “Don’t Fauci My Florida” merchandise, along with T-shirts, hats, and a flag saying “Keep Florida Free.”
“Trust us,” the DeSantis website says of the merchandise that went on sale the day before Thomas died of the virus. “You don’t want to miss out on this.”