“We’ve seen huge declines,” DeSantis said at a news conference Thursday. “Right now, Florida has the lowest covid-infection rate — case rate and infection rate of covidestim — in the country.”
Obviously “right now” is doing a lot of work there. Over the course of the pandemic, Florida’s case rates have been worse than the country’s 57 percent of the time. Its rate of population-adjusted deaths has been higher 63 percent of the time. Since Florida began reporting hospitalization data, its hospitalization rates have been higher on 72 percent of days.
But, regardless, a news release from DeSantis’s office Wednesday said: “Florida Reaches Lowest Case Rate in the Nation.” Given that infections confer immunity at least for a while, this is a bit like boasting that your forest hasn’t caught fire since your recent forest fire.
For months, DeSantis has tried to balance his opposition to coronavirus containment measures — best exemplified with his anti-Anthony S. Fauci campaign merchandise — with his need to actually try to keep Floridians alive. During the summer, he invested far more energy in treatments for those who’d contracted the virus than promoting vaccinations that would reduce the number of people who caught it in the first place. And so on Thursday, he didn’t just take a victory lap for his state finally not being a hotbed of new infections, he tried to dunk on those who’d recommended leaders do more to combat the virus.
Speaking of his newly appointed state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, who has already attracted attention for downplaying the safety of coronavirus vaccines, DeSantis praised his willingness to buck orthodoxy.
“You don’t want somebody that’s just going to genuflect to the narrative of the day,” he said, “or to listen to these TV doctors that have been wrong on everything from the very beginning.”
“They said lockdowns would stop covid. They lied,” he continued, apparently referring to the same “TV doctors,” though obviously also digging at people such as Fauci, the country’s top infectious-disease expert and a target of derision within DeSantis’s party. “They said forced masking would end the pandemic in 2020. That was a lie.”
Even if you think that limiting social interactions and mask-wearing don’t drive down infection numbers, which they do, DeSantis is constructing a straw man. Which person knowingly “lied” about “forced masking” exactly? How can you even evaluate the accuracy of that claim when states often only imposed mask mandates in limited conditions and for brief periods?
DeSantis then stepped onto rockier terrain.
“They said, people said if 50 percent are vaccinated you’ll never have any surges,” he claimed. “Well, we obviously have seen major surges, and we have way more than 50 percent vaccinated in a lot of different places.”
Three things happening here. First, this claim that someone said 50 percent vaccination rate would mean no surges. Perhaps he’s referring to some statement I haven’t seen but most experts long agreed that coronavirus infections would be pushed to the background when vaccination levels hit 80 percent or so. Florida isn’t there. Notice, too, the “in a lot of different places” qualifier that softens his bragging a bit.
But the point of this claim was simply to suggest that vaccinations wouldn’t have prevented what happened in his state. In recent weeks, DeSantis has repeatedly embraced anti-vaccination rhetoric and actors, always keeping one eye on the 2024 Republican presidential primary. Saying that Florida’s surge happened despite a vaccination level that he claims someone identified as the baseline is saying that vaccination baselines are wrong.
“It shouldn’t be politics,” DeSantis later said of the pandemic response. “None of this should have been from the very beginning. Unfortunately, it has been terribly politicized.”
Let’s just take the issue of vaccines. New data released by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) on Thursday shows that no group is less likely to report having gotten a dose of a vaccine than White Republicans. They are also among the groups that are most resistant to being vaccinated.
Clearly vaccination views correlate with politics and clearly the position of DeSantis’s party is that the vaccine is not needed or even that it should be rejected. Now who could be contributing to skepticism about vaccines? Certainly not an ambitious governor who implies that his state’s surge was despite it being so heavily vaccinated. Certainly not a governor who selects as his state’s surgeon general a man who suggests that the vaccines aren’t safe, despite the overwhelming public evidence that they are.
What’s interesting about the KFF data is that it allows us to look at three variables: the portion of a demographic group that’s gotten vaccinated, the portion that says it won’t and the percentage that says it will get vaccinated if it has to because of a mandate. We’ve already seen that a number of those fervently opposed to the vaccine end up getting it when mandated, so those last two categories are a little blurry.
But consider this graph, showing rates of vaccination (bottom to top) vs. opposition to the vaccine (left to right). Each circle is scaled to the percentage of the group that says it will get vaccinated if required.
At lower right (low vaccination rates, high resistance) are heavily Republican groups. At top left, heavily Democratic ones. But the most interesting group is the unvaccinated people under 65. Some opposition to the vaccine and low vaccination rates — but a high likelihood of being willing to get vaccinated if required for work, school or other activities. In other words, this is a place where vaccine regulations or mandates can have a real effect.
DeSantis’s news conference Thursday was focused on his opposition to vaccine mandates from the Biden administration and how his state would be filing a lawsuit against the federal government. Despite the fact that vaccines work and that there are obviously groups of people who would respond positively to requirements, DeSantis brought together reporters and Floridians to denounce the federal effort to promote those requirements.
Who, oh who, is politicizing this pandemic? It’s a mystery.