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Gov. Ron DeSantis Doesn’t Always Tell the Full COVID Story

Health experts say that some of the statements the Florida governor makes about COVID-19 and its vaccines are, sometimes, entirely incorrect, which contributes to the growing number of COVID infections and deaths.

(TNS) — Speaking in Panama City on Jan. 13, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters, “clearly the vax has not stopped people from being infected with omicron. That is just clear as day.”

“They had said it would end COVID,” DeSantis declared.

Like many of DeSantis’ comments about the coronavirus, it did not tell the whole story.

DeSantis’ statements about vaccine effectiveness and safety, antibody treatments and the power of natural immunity are cloudy in some cases and absolutely wrong in others, say epidemiologists and other experts interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

Mac Stipanovich, a Tallahassee consultant and former anti-Trump Republican turned independent, said DeSantis’ motivation is political. The Republican governor is courting anti-vax members of his party in advance of the 2024 GOP primary for president, he said.

“They stress two things out of the three things they could stress,” Stipanovich said of the DeSantis administration. “They stress therapeutics, which is treatment after infection, then they stress natural immunity after infection, and the only thing they don’t stress is vaccination before infection. And it’s all part of a message that is heard, if not explicit.”

DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw disagrees, saying in an email that “everything the governor has said was factual.”

Here are five COVID-related issues addressed by the governor and what health officials have to say in response:

Vaccine Effectiveness

DeSantis traveled the state in early 2021 promoting vaccinations. But since last May, DeSantis hasn’t held any events specifically about vaccines or boosters.

In recent months, DeSantis has repeatedly downplayed the effectiveness of vaccines, instead choosing to promote monoclonal antibody treatments for the already infected.

“COVID vaccines are not preventing infection, okay, it’s just not,” DeSantis said on Nov. 18.

On Jan. 28, the governor said there was “a lot of distrust in some of these government officials because remember, they would say just six months ago, COVID shots mean you will not get COVID. That’s just not factually true.”

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said in April 2021 that COVID-19 vaccines were expected to become less effective over time at preventing infection, and boosters would likely be needed, particularly if a new variant emerged.

“We may have cycles where we have to keep boosting people,” Fauci told MSNBC in March 2021.

Today, vaccines continue to reduce people’s odds of serious disease, which means they are doing their job, said Tom Unnasch, a University of South Florida distinguished health professor. Boosters help maintain that protection, he said.

A recent CDC report showed that the third dose of either the Pfizer or Moderna shots reduces the chance of hospitalization by 90 percent compared with unvaccinated people, and reduces the chance of a trip to the emergency room by 82 percent.

“Vaccines are doing exactly what we hoped they would. ... They are protecting against severe disease,” Unnasch said.

In addition, vaccines still offer some protection against transmission, contrary to DeSantis’ assertion that they haven’t curbed the spread of omicron. Vaccinated people appear to spread the virus for a shorter period than unvaccinated people, according to a vaccine guide posted online by Mayo Clinic staff on Feb. 4.

In response, Pushaw said “federal officials did make false statements,” citing comments from CDC Director Rochelle Walensky from April 2021 in which Wallensky said vaccinated people “don’t carry the virus.” Walensky’s statement, made prior to the delta variant becoming dominant over the summer, was immediately called into question by health experts at the time and was quickly walked back by the CDC.

Natural Immunity

On Jan. 28, Gov. Ron DeSantis told reporters, “The CDC just admitted that natural immunity was more protective than mRNA shots [vaccines]. That was obvious six months ago. … They finally have admitted that.”

That was an apparent reference to a CDC study that found for a few months last year during the delta surge, people who were vaccinated without any prior infection were more likely to test positive for COVID-19 than people who had previously been infected with the virus.

The study’s authors pointed out this was before most people had received booster doses to counteract waning vaccine immunity. They also said that when they started their study, vaccination appeared to have provided better protection than natural immunity, further suggesting that waning immunity could be at play.

Their takeaway was that vaccination is still the best way to protect yourself against COVID-19.

The potential risks of vaccines are far lower than the risks of trying to catch COVID-19 to gain natural immunity, the researchers say. Recent CDC data shows that boosters provide strong protection against severe disease from omicron.

“Vaccination remains the safest and primary strategy to prevent SARS-CoV-2 infections, associated complications, and onward transmission,” the authors write.

Elena Cyrus, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, said preventative health measures could be more effective than a focus on treatment at keeping the population safe.

“Given that the state is having a problem with staff shortages, students out of school and other … problems … related to COVID-19 health outcomes, a prudent focus might be to focus on maintaining a healthier population that is less sick overall,” wrote Cyrus in an email.

“And the most efficient and cost-effective way to do that continues to be through vaccination and other public health measures aimed at prevention of illness to begin with,” she said.

Asked to respond, Pushaw cited the same CDC study previously mentioned.

Monoclonal Antibodies

Last month, DeSantis lashed out at the FDA for pulling the emergency use authorization for two monoclonal antibody treatments by Regeneron and Eli Lilly, calling the decision “unbelievable.”

The treatments have been the centerpiece of DeSantis’ COVID-19 policy for months, in lieu of promoting vaccines.

At a news conference Jan. 26 and during a Jan. 28 roundtable, DeSantis criticized the science behind the decision.

“The study that they did was not a clinical trial, was not even done on human beings,” DeSantis said. “It was a lab study in vitro. And they basically said that it was not effective, dealing with it in a lab environment.”

He is correct that the study was not a clinical trial, and it was done in a lab, not on humans.

But Dr. Michael Diamond, a Washington University School of Medicine professor and one of the scientists who worked on the study, said the main takeaway is that monoclonal antibodies are less effective against omicron. He said there is enough evidence to conclude the Eli Lilly and Regeneron treatments are “likely to lose efficacy completely.”

Since his article came out, another animal study in mice found the same thing: Regeneron is not as effective against omicron as it was against delta.

Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University, pointed out that even the companies who made the monoclonal antibody treatments agreed that they should be taken out of circulation, something the governor does not mention in his criticism.

“Monoclonal antibody treatments are not without risks,” she said. “Therefore, they should not be given unless there is a clear potential benefit.”

Fertility and Vaccines

In a news conference on Jan. 20 to announce funding for nursing certification programs, DeSantis slammed federal mandates for health care workers to get vaccinated. But one comment stuck out.

“Think about how ridiculous it is what they’re doing by trying to force the nurses” to get vaccinated, he said. “A lot of these nurses have had COVID. A lot of them are younger. Some of them are trying to have families.”

The last comment drew national attention.

The vaccines do not affect a woman’s ability to become pregnant or harm pregnant women, health experts say. The consensus about the vaccine’s safety is so strong that every major maternal care organization in the United States issued a joint statement strongly recommending vaccination.

The group included the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Academy of Family Physicians, the American College of Nurse-Midwives, and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine.

“COVID-19 vaccines have no impact on fertility,” the statement read. “Pregnant individuals and those planning to become pregnant should feel confident in choosing vaccination to protect themselves, their infants, their families, and their communities.”

At the same time, ample evidence suggests that pregnant women are at higher risk of severe complications from COVID-19 than non-pregnant women. This means the risks of catching COVID-19 outweigh the risks of vaccination for pregnant women, the CDC’s website states.

One recent study of Scottish mothers published in Nature found that unvaccinated pregnant people with COVID-19 are more likely to be hospitalized than vaccinated moms-to-be, and their babies are more likely to die soon after birth. An April study from University of Oxford researchers found women with a COVID-19 diagnosis were 22 times more likely to die during pregnancy.

“It is important to always acknowledge that the risk of vaccine-related side effects, despite being exceedingly small, is not zero,” said Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health. “However, the risks associated with getting COVID-19 while pregnant — including of maternal death, stillbirth, and preterm delivery far, far outweigh any risks associated with COVID-19 vaccination.”

Pushaw said DeSantis “didn’t say anything about fertility” and vaccines, though she also said it was “worth noting some women are concerned” about potential changes to their menstrual cycles.

She said the remark was instead about job security being important to start a family.


At a Federalist Society event Friday at Walt Disney World, DeSantis was asked by former White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany about a recent lockdown study.

“But on the subject of lockdowns, big study out this week that the leftist press is ignoring,” McEnany said. “Johns Hopkins University did a meta-study of 34 studies and found the lockdowns have little to no public health effects. … It seems like you were kind of vindicated by Johns Hopkins.”

“Yeah,” DeSantis responded. “ ... Lockdowns absolutely had a negative public health effect on people and certainly people who were by and large not terribly at risk from COVID.”

“When I look back at lockdowns, it was supposed to be ‘15 days to slow the spread,’” DeSantis continued. “Now these epidemiological models were totally, totally wrong. And those people should be held accountable for that.”

As Canada’s National Post reported, what McEnany and DeSantis were discussing was not a study coming from Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Research Center, from which most of its COVID research has originated, but instead a “working paper” from three economists with the university’s Krieger School of Arts and Sciences.

The study, which was not published in a scientific journal and was not peer-reviewed, “only sought data on COVID mortality, and ignored the effects ... on other factors such as hospitalizations or overall case rates,” the Post wrote.

It also excluded peer-reviewed studies such as the one published in Nature that calculated lockdowns saved 3 million lives in Europe in 2020.

The author of the Nature study, Seth Flaxman of the University of Oxford, criticized the paper’s methodology along with several other researchers.

“They systematically excluded from consideration any study based on the science of disease transmission, meaning that the only studies looked at in the analysis are studies using the methods of economics,” Flaxman wrote.

And while DeSantis decried “perpetual lockdown policies” as recently as Feb. 8, the vast majority of states ended their spring 2020 lockdowns within a few weeks of DeSantis’ own 30-day lockdown from April to May.

Only six states extended their 2020 lockdowns into June, and only California (August) and New Mexico (November) extended them any further. Since then, there have been no 2020-style lockdowns or stay-at-home orders, only stricter masking and vaccination policies than in Florida.

DeSantis and his staff continuing to compare “lockdown states” with a “free” Florida, is “a sleight of hand,” Stipanovich said. “It equates masks with lockdowns, which isn’t the case. And they do that sort of thing all the time.”

Pushaw said, “Any policy that requires a person to show proof of COVID-19 vaccination or cover their faces in order to participate in everyday life is a ‘lockdown.’”

“You can define the word lockdown however you want, but the governor was referring to government-imposed restrictions on movement,” Pushaw said.

‘A Credibility Gap’

Kenneth Goodman, a bioethicist and director of the Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy at the University of Miami, criticized the “kooky views acquiring broad currency” among state leadership. But he agreed with Stipanovich that the ultimate motive is political.

“There are times when it serves a political interest to engender doubt,” he said. “And there’s a subset of politicians who have tried really hard to spread doubt about scientific knowledge in the context of COVID.”

Goodman said the changing circumstances of the virus and its mutations, and the continuing search for information about the virus and its mitigation, have been “weaponized in the interests of undermining.”

“When the experts have been mistaken, they’re criticized for not having been infallible, even though it’s a probabilistic science with a brand new virus and there’s really exciting, important science moving forward quickly,” he said. “ ... It’s been weaponized in the interest of advancing what I think most ordinary Americans regard as a sad and silly political agenda.”

“We used to call it a credibility gap,” Goodman said of politicians’ untrustworthiness. “Now, the problem is there are actually dead people as a result of it.”

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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