The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Republicans maneuver to block vaccine mandates, undercutting a policy widely seen as an effective tool to end pandemic

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale on Sept. 16 to promote the monoclonal antibody treatment for covid-19. (Wilfredo Lee/AP)

As covid-19 roared back in Florida over the summer, Gov. Ron DeSantis sounded like a champion of vaccines, declaring that the shots were “saving lives” and that the risk of death while vaccinated was “effectively zero.”

But in recent days, as President Biden and public health experts have embraced broad vaccine requirements as a necessary tool to combat the spread of the coronavirus’s highly infectious delta variant, DeSantis has shifted his focus — devoting much of his time to battling any business or government agency that would require workers to get the shot.

“These big government mandates strip away people’s rights to make the best decision for themselves, but we are going to protect Floridians from federal and local government overreach,” the governor said last week during a stop in Gainesville to denounce that city’s employee vaccine requirement.

After initially touting coronavirus vaccines and mask mandates, some GOP governors are now shying away from pandemic mandates. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

DeSantis’s hard-line stance has become the prevailing view of the Republican Party, with Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp also stepping forward to oppose local mandates in their states in the name of protecting individual liberty. In the hotly contested race for Virginia governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin said in a debate last week that “individuals should be allowed to make that decision on their own,” while on Sunday Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves, whose state is among the leaders in the country in covid deaths per 100,000 residents, warned on CNN that the country would be in “deep, deep trouble” if a president has “unilateral authority” to impose vaccine requirements.

But the GOP’s increasingly combative rhetoric on mandates and pandemic policies more broadly — such as DeSantis’s and Abbott’s executive orders barring schools from requiring everyone to wear masks — is making it harder for the country to move past the virus, some experts say.

The party’s stance contradicts well-established public health guidance on how to fight infectious disease, turning vaccine policy into the latest cultural flash point for an increasingly radicalized party. After all, experts note, mass vaccinations historically have not worked against deadly infectious diseases without mandates.

“It’s very cynical. They’re just using it as yet another wedge issue, and they’re doing it at the detriment of all of us,” said Celine Gounder, an infectious-disease specialist and epidemiologist at New York University and Bellevue Hospital, a Biden pandemic adviser and host of the “Epidemic” and “American Diagnosis” podcasts.

Republicans have focused many of their attacks on Biden, who earlier this month announced a rule that would require businesses with more than 100 employees to mandate vaccinations for workers or else have them submit to regular testing.

But many GOP leaders have not limited their critique to arguments about federal overreach, adopting blanket rhetoric opposing vaccine requirements at any level — and often not specifying if their views extend beyond coronavirus shots to immunizations for other diseases such as measles that have long been required by schools, the military and other institutions.

“If you’re against mandates, then why were you not there last year when we had childhood immunization laws about mandated vaccinations that have saved so many thousands of lives?” said Michael Osterholm, director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota and one of Biden’s pandemic advisers.

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In Florida, the GOP’s approach has made at least one state-level Republican uneasy.

State Rep. Rene Plasencia, who represents the Orlando area in the Florida House of Representatives, said he supports DeSantis on some policies but opposes the governor’s efforts to prohibit schools and businesses from implementing mask and vaccine mandates.

“Unfortunately, it’s now become an argument of civil rights, which I think is absolutely silly,” Plasencia said. “We’re talking about public welfare and safety.”

Plasencia said he also opposes Biden’s mandate for businesses, which is one of the most far-reaching policies in recent history and, Republicans argue, would impose onerous requirements on small businesses.

“That one doesn’t benefit anyone. You’re asking for a fight, and maybe that’s what they wanted because responsible businesses are going to do it anyways,” Plasencia said.

Florida currently has among the highest covid death rates per 100,000 residents in the country, according to Washington Post tracking. Infections from the delta variant pummeled the state, which saw higher numbers of infections each day over the past few months than during any other time during the pandemic, a remarkable development given the wide availability of vaccines.

DeSantis’s administration is purposefully not putting as much emphasis on them as public health experts and the Biden administration would like, in part because doing so, they say, can have unintended consequences.

“Vaccine hesitancy is complicated, and overreaching government mandates can make people even more hesitant to get the vaccine,” said Christina Pushaw, a spokeswoman for DeSantis. “While vaccination is the responsible choice for most people, focusing on vaccination to the exclusion of anything else is shortsighted.”

She added that the governor views covid as a “treatable illness,” saying that access to treatments is as large part of ending the pandemic, which she defined as “as making covid into a much less deadly and dangerous illness.”

Public support of mandates has grown in recent months as people search for a way to return to some sense of normalcy. A Washington Post-ABC News poll found support for employers requiring vaccines for people who come into work rising from 45 percent in April to 52 percent in a poll ending Sept. 1. Polls by NPR-PBS-Marist and CNN found similar rises in support.

While surveys show strong Republican opposition to vaccine mandates, results are mixed when it comes to how voters feel about GOP governors’ work dealing with the pandemic. Recent polls in Florida and Texas — by Quinnipiac University and the University of Texas, respectively — showed small majorities disapproving of the way DeSantis and Abbott each have handled the issue. DeSantis’s approval on the pandemic, though, has risen slightly in recent months, while Abbott’s has dropped.

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Beyond mandates, Republican lawmakers have also stayed largely silent in the face of rampant vaccine misinformation and conspiracy theories. DeSantis said nothing as a man standing next to him at the Gainesville news conference shared a false claim about how vaccines change people’s RNA. And other high-profile Republicans have been harbingers of vaccine misinformation themselves, including Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) and Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

Paul has argued that immunity acquired from an infection is more effective than vaccines, even though it’s unclear how long natural immunity lasts and experts have recommended that even those who have been infected with the virus get vaccinated. Johnson has said natural immunity is “as strong if not stronger” than the vaccines and that there are small risks of serious side effects from the vaccines, including death, which has not been established by any study or case.

The battle over vaccines is shaping up as a heated issue in next year’s midterm elections with the potential to energize core voters in both parties.

Those dynamics have been on display in recent days from coast to coast.

In local primaries, candidates who have hesitated on measures to end the pandemic have performed poorly. Former Ohio congressman and former Cleveland mayor Dennis Kucinich, who led in the polls in a recent primary contest to lead the city, spent the final days of his campaign trying to explain why he initially wouldn’t reveal his vaccination status. He lost.

In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom crushed a Republican-led campaign to recall him from office by touting his efforts to thwart the pandemic, including his moves to require vaccinations or regular coronavirus tests for teachers and other school staff members.

And in Virginia, the issue sparked a heated exchange during the opening moments of Thursday night’s gubernatorial debate.

“I don’t believe that President Biden has the authority to dictate to everyone that we have to take the vaccine,” Youngkin said.

Youngkin, who is embroiled in a tight race against Democrat Terry McAuliffe in a state that Biden won easily, sought to distinguish between concern about the mandates and his support for the vaccines. “I have been a strong advocate for everyone to get the vaccine,” Youngkin said.

McAuliffe said that he would support adding coronavirus vaccinations to the list of immunizations that all Virginia students must get. He made an exception for students under 12 years old, for whom the coronavirus vaccines are not yet authorized.

Local Republican leaders across the country are seizing on the issue, arguing that the mandates violate personal freedom and that the White House has overreached by essentially asking business owners to enforce a national vaccination program.

Salleigh Grubbs, the GOP chair in Cobb County, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta, said Biden’s mandates will “absolutely” fire up the Republican base in the state, which has a key Senate race next year. “Being a conservative, we are for freedom to make our own decisions,” Grubbs said.

Still others are torn by Biden’s mandates. Jessica Cavazos, chief executive of Wisconsin’s Latino Chamber of Commerce, said the mandates are prompting tense conversations among her members.

“It’s been very difficult. It’s a community divided,” Cavazos said. “We don’t want to see our economy fall again or more people die. But also it’s an infringement on your rights as a human being.”

Your questions about coronavirus vaccines, answered

Some Republican governors and lawmakers have also spent significant time touting covid-19 treatments in an effort to assure their constituents that, even if they do get infected, they have options.

Abbott and DeSantis, for instance, have set up numerous infusion centers for monoclonal antibodies, which are highly effective in treating covid-19 cases, especially if administered early. They have also repeatedly promoted their use.

The treatment’s popularity even among those eschewing vaccines has perplexed doctors and public health officials, who note it is more invasive than receiving a vaccination, requiring an infusion that usually takes more than an hour, and is typically more than $2,000, though the government has covered the costs. President Donald Trump received the treatment before it was authorized for use when he became sick with covid-19 last year and touted it as a “miracle.”

Seven states in the Deep South were using so much of the national supply — including Florida and Texas — that the federal government last week took over distribution of the therapy and purchased 1.4 million additional doses to stave off shortages.

“Republican governors believe that the only outcome of pushing people who don’t want the vaccine to get vaccinated is that their base of support will decrease,” said Chris Meekins, a health-care analyst at financial firm Raymond James and former Trump administration health official. “What they can do for those people that may prove fruitful is to get treatments available to folks.”

Although the treatment has been heralded by both Biden and Republican governors, its distribution has become yet another partisan fight. DeSantis said Florida was being punished with the Biden administration’s decision to take over distribution.

David Weigel and Scott Clement contributed to this report.