IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

DeSantis' dangerous war on vaccines

Make no mistake: His cynical actions will cost Floridians their lives.
Image: Florida Governor Ron DeSantis gestures while speaking on stage.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks at the Republican Jewish Coalition annual leadership meeting in Las Vegas, on Nov. 19. Wade Vandervort / AFP via Getty Images file

Since March 2020, more than 83,000 Floridians have died from Covid. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, it seems, is intent on ensuring that number rises.

On Tuesday, the potential 2024 Republican presidential candidate announced that he has asked the state Supreme Court to empanel a grand jury to “investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to Covid-19 vaccines.” 

To be clear, DeSantis is not interested in looking at why only 72% of Florida residents are fully vaccinated even as the number of Covid cases in his state are steadily rising — and vaccines have been readily available for more than 18 months. Nor does he appear concerned that Florida has the fourth lowest rate in the country for Covid booster shots, and a vaccination rate for children and teenagers well below the national average

DeSantis’ recent actions show something quite different and far more disturbing — that he has fully embraced the language of vaccine opponents.

Rather, DeSantis wants the court to investigate the drug companies that produced the vaccines and the public health officials who promoted their use. Indeed, his announcement came at the end of a 90-minute roundtable discussion that focused on the alleged dangers of Covid vaccines. He was joined by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo who, during his tenure as the state's top public health official, has consistently spread dangerous vaccine misinformation. Under Ladapo’s leadership Florida was the only state in the country that didn’t preorder the Covid vaccine for children under 5 — because it doesn’t recommend vaccinating them. And earlier this year, Ladapo counseled men under the age of 40 to avoid vaccination.

The latter recommendation came from a study done by public health officials in Florida that was not peer-reviewed and has come under intense criticism from public health experts for claiming that the risk of myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart, outweighed the benefits of the Covid vaccine. In fact, not only is the risk of myocarditis far greater from Covid than from vaccinations, but also the chances of developing myocarditis decrease with vaccinations. 

Covid vaccines are not dangerous. They are a miracle. According to a study released this week by the Commonwealth Fund, in just two years in the United States alone, they have already spared more than 3 million lives, prevented 18.5 million hospitalizations and saved the country $1.15 trillion. And these numbers are considered a conservative estimate. 

Surely DeSantis, who graduated from Yale undergrad and Harvard Law School, knows this. In fact, when the vaccines were first introduced, he promoted their use. But as anti-vaccine attitudes increased among Republicans, he cynically changed course. As New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait points out, DeSantis’ defenders claim that he is merely questioning the efficacy of vaccine mandates — and that his opposition to forced vaccines is consistent with his “free state of Florida” ideology. But DeSantis’ recent actions show something quite different and far more disturbing — that he has fully embraced the language of vaccine opponents. By suggesting that vaccines produce side effects potentially more dangerous than Covid, he is providing aid and comfort to the one-third of Americans who stubbornly refuse to get vaccinated. 

Make no mistake, the governor’s cynical actions will cost lives.

In fact, in his news conference, DeSantis went a dangerous step further. He announced the launching of a public health integrity committee that would work in opposition to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. According to DeSantis, the nation’s foremost public health agency “is not serving a useful function; it’s really serving to advance narratives rather than do evidence-based medicine.” 

Of course, it is DeSantis who is advancing evidence-free narratives. 

Make no mistake, the governor’s cynical actions will cost lives. An analysis from Brown University’s School of Public Health found that more than half the Covid deaths in Florida from January 2021 to April this year could have been prevented had those individuals gotten vaccinated. In fact, according to the Brown study, Florida is 13th per capita in preventable Covid deaths — a ranking undoubtedly influenced by DeSantis’ laissez-faire approach to the pandemic compared to other states. And according to a recent study by two Yale School of Public Health professors, “excess deaths during the pandemic were 76% higher among Republicans than Democrats in two states, Ohio and Florida.” Moreover, “the partisan gap in death rates increased significantly after vaccines were introduced.”

These divergent death rates were a direct byproduct of the vaccine skepticism aired by Republican leaders and conservative media figures. All of them have blood on their hands, including DeSantis, who seems unbothered by the suffering his decisions have already caused.

For all the talk of Republicans turning away from former President Donald Trump’s mania over the 2020 election — and embracing new, more mature leadership — the GOP’s top alternative is a vaccine opponent cynically spreading misinformation and endangering lives for near-term political gain. Arguably, DeSantis’ behavior is even more dangerous than Trump’s — because rather than a hypothetical effort to steal a future election or undermine American democracy, DeSantis' actions are enabling Republicans who don’t want to get vaccinated — and costing lives today. Even if Republicans decide they’re done with the old boss, the new one might be even worse.