After Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) said Monday that cities and counties in the state could face millions of dollars in fines for requiring their employees to get vaccinated against the coronavirus, he stood silently next to a Gainesville city employee who spread misinformation about the vaccines.
“The vaccine changes your RNA, so for me that’s a problem,” said Darris Friend, a 22-year city employee who is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the Gainesville government over its vaccine requirements for all municipal employees. “We don’t want to have the vaccine. It’s about our freedom and liberty.”
DeSantis, who looked to the ground and appeared uncomfortable with the employee’s false claim at the news conference, did not correct Friend’s vaccine misinformation, which an infectious-disease expert described to the Tampa Bay Times as “false and wrong.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that the coronavirus vaccines, two of which are known as messenger RNA vaccines, “do not affect or interact with our DNA” or RNA. The vaccines have been proved to be overwhelmingly safe, and the Food and Drug Administration has given full approval to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
At the Ron DeSantis press conference today, a guest claimed that the COVID vaccines change your RNA which is absolutely false.— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) September 13, 2021
I'm putting this longer clip here so you can see that DeSantis did nothing to correct this misinformation, which is prevalent in he anti-vaxx movement. pic.twitter.com/Sqq7RbaHF2
Another city employee, Christine Damm, suggested at the DeSantis event, without evidence, that she would die if she got vaccinated.
“I will not put my children through the possibility of losing another maternal figure in their lives,” said Damm, who has worked for the city for 10 years.
As clips of the Alachua County news conference were shared across social media, critics questioned why the governor, who supports the vaccine but will not mandate it, did not stop the spread of misinformation at his own event.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw told The Washington Post on Tuesday that questions over DeSantis not correcting the city employee’s misinformation over RNA “misses the point” of a news conference to highlight the “government overreach and unscientific mandates to control people’s lives.”
“The governor has never said the vaccine changes your RNA, and nobody who has seen his 50+ public appearances promoting vaccination throughout Florida this year would think that is the governor’s position,” Pushaw wrote in an email. “The speaker whose remarks included that comment was at the news conference in his capacity as a member of a lawsuit against the city government’s extreme overreach.”
Friend and Damm did not immediately respond to efforts to reach them.
The event is the latest escalation in Republican leaders’ opposition to public health mandates. DeSantis, who has clashed with local leaders and educators over masks in schools, is among a group of Republican governors denouncing or vowing action against President Biden’s sweeping order requiring businesses with more than 100 employees to require their workers to be vaccinated or to be regularly tested for the coronavirus.
The governor advocated for the workers who are suing the City of Gainesville and face termination if they are not vaccinated. The city has given employees until Sept. 30 to get vaccinated.
“You don’t just cast aside people who have been serving faithfully over this issue, over what’s basically a personal choice on their individual health,” DeSantis said at the news conference.
Nearly 24,000 new coronavirus cases were reported over the weekend in Florida, according to data compiled by The Post. New infections are beginning to plateau in the state, but Florida still leads the nation in new daily cases with nearly 12,500. The number of people hospitalized for covid-19 has also improved, even as Florida’s 11,547 hospitalizations, including 2,796 in intensive care units, still puts the state second nationally.
Fifty-five percent of the state is fully vaccinated, which is ahead of the national vaccination rate of 53.8 percent.
As the CDC has outlined, the messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are a new type of immunization to fight infectious diseases. Instead of using a weakened or inactive germ to cause an immune response, the messenger RNA vaccines instruct cells to create a protein that will help trigger that same response. From there, the immune response produces antibodies needed to prevent covid-19.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses an adenovirus, a harmless virus, to achieve the same immune response.
The CDC has found that deaths following vaccination are extremely rare. The agency said 7,439 deaths were reported to the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System — accounting for 0.0020 percent of the more than 375 million doses administered in the United States between Dec. 14 and Sept. 7. The CDC noted that the FDA requires health-care providers to report all deaths after vaccination “even if it’s unclear whether the vaccine was the cause.”
“Reports of adverse events … following vaccination, including deaths, do not necessarily mean that a vaccine caused a health problem,” the CDC said this month.
Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, told WKMG that the claim by the city employee at the governor’s news conference was just not true.
“A lot of people are saying, ‘I’m not getting the vaccine because it will alter my DNA and RNA,’ ” Salemi said. “No, the mRNA breaks down quickly after entering people’s cells and is unable to alter your DNA.”
In Gainesville, the city commissioners voted 4-to-3 in favor of the vaccination mandate last month. City Commissioner Adrian Hayes-Santos told WUFT that he voted in favor of the mandate “to ensure that we have a safe workplace and that the public interactions with our people who work for the city as well are safer too.”
A lawsuit was filed against the city Aug. 26 by a group of more than 200 city employees who challenge the mandate’s constitutionality.
Standing beside Friend and other city employees, DeSantis pointed to a Florida law passed this year that bars government entities from requiring proof of vaccination or recovery from infection “to gain access to, entry upon, or service from” their operations. The law threatens fines of up to $5,000 per violation and also bans private businesses from making customers show they are vaccinated.
“And so if a government agency in the state of Florida forces a vaccine as a condition to employment, that violates Florida law,” DeSantis said.
After Friend’s misinformation was met with raucous applause from the crowd, including from Florida Attorney General Ashley Moody (R), DeSantis shook his hand and did not address the false claim as he introduced Damm.
“We want to show up and do our jobs,” Damm said at the news conference, according to WGFL. “We are your neighbors and we’re just like you. We live or work in the city of Gainesville, we love Gainesville and the state of Florida. My body, my choice, my business — I will not comply.”
Lauren Schenone Cassedy, a spokeswoman for Moody, told The Post that the attorney general “has been clear that she is vaccinated and believes vaccines are a safe and effective way to combat covid-19.”
Shelby Taylor, a spokeswoman for the city of Gainesville, said “the health, safety and welfare of our city’s workforce and those we serve is our number one priority.”
“It is our belief that as an employer, we retain the right and responsibility to require vaccinations as a condition of employment,” Taylor said in an email to The Post.
The governor’s silence about the misinformation was not an encouraging sign for Sally Alrabaa, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of South Florida.
“Frankly, our medical community, who has been tirelessly fighting this deadly infection and pleading with people to protect themselves and their loved ones by getting vaccinated, is disappointed that DeSantis didn’t correct this man to stop deadly misinformation,” Alrabaa told the Times.
Others, such as Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava (D), were quick to note that the vaccine misinformation should not stop Floridians from getting vaccinated.
“Fact check: No, the COVID-19 vaccine does not alter your RNA,” she tweeted. “The vaccine is safe and effective and over 200 million Americans have now received at least one dose.”
Hannah Knowles and Tim Craig contributed to this report.
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