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Thursday, February 22, 2024

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis injects presidential politics into the COVID vaccine debate

As Americans consider whether to take advice from federal health officials and get an updated COVID vaccine, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is drumming the message that ignited his national political career: Ignore what the federal government tells you about COVID-19.

Last week — as polling showed him running a distant second to Donald Trump for the Republican presidential nomination — DeSantis convened a virtual roundtable featuring a panel of COVID vaccine skeptics. Their mission: to swat away the FDA’s findings that the new shots are safe and effective for those 6 months and older.

Instead, they advised those younger than 65 not to get vaccinated, suggesting without evidence that the shots could be harmful.

“I will not stand by and let the FDA and CDC use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective,” said DeSantis, contradicting the FDA’s findings. “Once again, Florida is the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts.”

Backing up DeSantis was the handpicked keeper of his public health strategy: his state’s surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo.

“My judgment is that it’s not a good decision for young people and for people who are not at high risk at this point in the pandemic,” Ladapo said.

Ladapo has come under fire from public health experts since DeSantis tapped him for the role. He has been rebuked by federal health officials for promoting misinformation about COVID and vaccines generally. And a report by the faculty of the University of Florida’s College of Medicine expressed “concern for research integrity violations” in a state health department study that suggested receiving an mRNA vaccine against COVID increased the risk of death among young men.

Ladapo personally altered the study’s findings, Politico reported. And research has shown the risk of cardiac complications among young men is up to 5.6 times as high after COVID infection as after COVID vaccination.

With public health officials facing an uphill battle to persuade Americans to get one of the updated vaccines — just 17% received the 2022 booster — DeSantis’ tactic could further depress uptake by stoking doubts about the vaccines.

DeSantis is “playing with fire, and this is about life and death,” said Donna Shalala, who served as U.S. Health and Human Services secretary during the Clinton administration and later represented Florida in Congress.

“But I think people will see it for what it is: a desperate attempt at very high risk to people in Florida to reposition himself,” she said.

DeSantis trails Trump by more than 40 points, on average, in polls of GOP primary voters, a gap that has widened despite the governor’s recent efforts to reboot his campaign.

More than 90,000 people in Florida have died from COVID-19.

And, while there have been a few serious side effects associated with COVID vaccines, their incidence is rare and several studies have shown that vaccinated people are at no greater risk of death from non-COVID causes than those who are unvaccinated. More than 600 million doses of COVID vaccines have been administered in the U.S., according to Our World in Data.

That information was not mentioned in the discussion last week, when the panel — which notably included no vaccine or infectious disease experts — said without evidence that the shots might have “negative efficacy” or even cause increased infection from the virus.

DeSantis and Ladapo said they were troubled by the lack of human trials before the latest COVID vaccines were authorized — though they did not address why they might be less concerned about the risks for those age 65 and older.

Annual flu vaccines also do not undergo clinical testing on humans. But Ladapo called it “sleight of hand” to compare the COVID boosters to the flu vaccine, because it has been around for decades. “It is a completely different phenomenon,” he said.

The Florida Health Department did not respond to questions about whether it recommends the flu vaccine in light of its dearth of human testing.

Daniel Salmon, a vaccine expert at Johns Hopkins University who watched the roundtable, said he took issue with the claim that there wasn’t clinical data supporting the new vaccines’ safe use. Like the flu vaccine, the primary COVID vaccines went through clinical trials, and there wouldn’t be time to conduct one every time a new strain emerges, he said.

The discussion was not a robust debate around scientific uncertainty among experts, Salmon said. He noted the panelists’ lack of expertise and training in vaccines and infectious disease, saying they instead leaned on their positions as physicians, academics, and the Florida surgeon general to give them credibility.

“They don’t know COVID,” Salmon said. “They’re cherry-picking facts to defend their position. And they don’t have the expertise to make those decisions for a large number of people.”

“It felt to me like they were trying to sow doubt,” he said, “and that’s dangerous.”

Polling by the nonprofit health organization KFF shows that most Americans encounter health misinformation, and many are uncertain about the veracity of claims about the COVID vaccines.

DeSantis built his national reputation on bucking the medical establishment and ending 2020’s pandemic lockdown earlier in Florida than many other states did. He also has gained a following — and raised money — by criticizing the federal government under President Joe Biden and guidance from the nation’s former top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci, who left his post at the National Institutes of Health in December.

DeSantis’ handling of the COVID response helped propel him to a massive reelection victory last year and to the front of the pack of 2024 Republican presidential contenders this spring.

David Richards, chair of the International Relations and Political Science Department at the University of Lynchburg in Virginia, said he is not surprised by DeSantis’ approach to the updated vaccines given his polling numbers, his reputation for pushing “medical freedom,” and his general vaccine policies.

“He needs to remain relevant and set himself apart from other candidates,” he said.

Last year, DeSantis opposed providingCOVID vaccinesto young children after Florida came under fire for being the only state not to preorder doses ahead of the federal government’s approval of vaccination for children under 5.

This year, DeSantis urged Florida’s GOP-controlled legislature to approve pandemic-related legislation that runs counter to some public health recommendations, including measures to permanently ban school mask mandates and bar businesses from firing employees who don’t get vaccinated.

Matt Dallek, a political historian at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said DeSantis’ messaging on the new COVID vaccines shows his desire to distance himself from Trump — even though Trump’s 2018 endorsement led to his winning the Florida governor’s race.

“This is a way for him to exploit the issue, though it may come at the expense of lives of anyone who would listen to him in Florida and elsewhere,” he said.


KFF Health News is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues and is one of the core operating programs at KFF—an independent source of health policy research, polling, and journalism. Learn more about KFF.

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