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Column: DeSantis doubles down on anti-science campaign as COVID explodes in Florida

A blustering Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis claims on May 20 to have defeated the coronavirus.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis complaining in May 2020 that he gets no respect for defeating the coronavirus. But new cases in his state broke records only a few weeks later.
(C-SPAN)

To hear Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pitch, you’d think that his state’s battle against the pandemic has ended in a roaring, unalloyed victory, and it’s all due to him.

“The key to Florida’s success has been protecting the most vulnerable, i.e. seniors and residents of long-term care facilities,” a DeSantis spokeswoman told the Tampa Bay Times last week.

The Republican governor himself has been fundraising — whether for a reelection campaign in 2022 or a presidential run in 2024 isn’t clear — off his resistance to imposing lockdowns and mask regulations on Floridians.

I refused to blindly follow Dr. Fauci...and allow him to strip Floridians of their God-given freedoms.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, in fundraising appeal

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Sadly, all this crowing assumes a fact not in evidence: that Florida’s battle with COVID has been a “success.”

In truth, it’s been nothing of the kind. The state, which has 6.5% of the U.S. population, accounts for 20% of America’s new COVID infections. Its recent daily average of 29 new infections per 100,000 population is four times the national average.

As we’ve mentioned before, we wouldn’t normally be picking on DeSantis just because his state has run into snags in fighting the pandemic.

Almost every state is seeing a rise in cases, thanks partially to the high transmissibility of the Delta variant of the virus, and partially to pockets of unvaccinated residents — pockets that in some cases cover entire states.

What has set DeSantis apart has been his insistence on portraying his state’s record as a reproach to liberal orthodoxy.

That’s been his line since a year ago, when he started grousing about having become the target of a “typical partisan narrative” forecasting an increase in disease cases tied to his purportedly premature reopening of Florida‘s businesses and recreation areas. At the time, the increase hadn’t appeared; eventually, however, it did.

Lately, DeSantis has aired out a much more sinister campaign theme. He’s openly attacking the science underlying the COVID fight, and doing so by targeting one person: Anthony Fauci.

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Florida Gov. DeSantis is running a victory lap over his COVID-19 response as the press plays along.

As head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Fauci has become a standard whipping boy for conservatives pushing back against anti-pandemic restrictions, but few politicians have placed him at the center of their outreach to their political base like DeSantis.

A recent online fundraising appeal made Fauci the subject of every paragraph. “I refused to blindly follow Dr. Fauci ... and allow him to strip Floridians of their God-given freedoms,” DeSantis declared. “I chose to lift Florida up, not follow the lead of Dr. Fauci and lock Florida down.”

DeSantis harnessed his attack on Fauci to an attack on the “media elites,” whoever they are. “Corporate media are attacking me for having the backbone to call Fauci out for the damage he has caused,” he whined.

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That’s amusing, since the “media elites” have sullied themselves in pumping up DeSantis as a front-runner for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination, based on nothing but his own claims to be a hero of COVID warfare. Back in March, as we reported, Politico posted an article headlined, “How Ron DeSantis won the pandemic.”

Vaccination rates
Vaccination rates closely correlate with the 2020 presidential election results, with counties that voted for Biden over Trump showing higher rates and vice-versa as statistical expert Charles Gaba has determined.
(ACASignups.net)

Around that time, the Associated Press posted an article stating that “despite their differing approaches, California and Florida have experienced almost identical outcomes in COVID-19 case rates” — an assertion that wasn’t remotely true, given that California’s case rates were measurably lower than Florida’s.

CNN came to a similar conclusion. “DeSantis’ gamble to take a laissez faire approach appears to be paying off,” it reported — though it was careful enough to qualify that its judgment applied “at least politically, at least for now.”

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DeSantis’ campaign slogan appears to be “Choose Freedom over Faucism.” His campaign sells T-shirts bearing the slogan “Don’t Fauci my Florida” and a beer can cozy imprinted with a quote attributed to DeSantis: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?” Fun lovin’ guy, our Ron.

This would be marginally amusing, like watching a newborn play with his toes, were it not likely to undermine science-based efforts to beat back the pandemic. DeSantis has targeted Fauci because the latter became the face of the anti-pandemic battle; by attacking Fauci’s reputation, DeSantis is undermining the bedrock science at the heart of the battle.

That includes vaccinations, which are indispensable and in which Florida’s record is nothing to brag about. The state currently ranks 23rd in both total doses administered per capita and total doses administered to residents over 18 per capita. (California, by comparison, ranks 13th in the first metric and 12th in the second.)

The real threat to the country’s ability to fight the virus is no longer a lack of resources — it’s the partisan politicization of masks and vaccines to the extent that the most reliable indicator of a locality’s vaccination rate is the percentage of votes that went for Donald Trump in the 2020 election.

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It’s proper to ask whether DeSantis recognizes the consequences of his campaign rhetoric or even cares. The points he makes aren’t really designed to communicate policy positions. Rather, they’re shibboleths — code words, phrases and images aimed at touching a specific community — in this case, the GOP’s Trumpian right wing. For them, Fauci has become merely a symbol of liberal overreach.

Florida Gov. DeSantis represents all that’s wrong with America’s coronavirus response.

Fauci himself hasn’t played any role in policies to “strip Floridians of their God-given freedoms” by locking Florida down — he has no authority over state policies whatsoever, and indeed virtually no authority even to make policy recommendations. His role has been to speak up for a science-based approach to policy, and what sticks in conservatives’ craws is that a majority of Americans trust what he says.

DeSantis’ entire political approach is to wrap himself in reactionary shibboleths. Last month he spoke up for “keeping critical race theory out of schools” in Florida, seizing on the latest hobby horse for the right-wing educational purity crowd. (You probably can’t lose a dime by betting that DeSantis couldn’t define “critical race theory” in any coherent way.)

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When “vaccine passports” emerged as a possible means of ensuring that people in indoor or outdoor venues were vaccinated, DeSantis jumped on the anti-passport bandwagon, signing a law that would fine businesses for even asking arriving patrons if they’ve gotten their shots.

Leaving all that to one side, the important question is how well Florida has fared in the pandemic battle. Let’s take a closer look at the numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Over the seven-day period that ended Monday, the CDC says, Florida recorded 211.5 new daily COVID cases and 1.1 new daily COVID deaths per 100,000 residents. That placed it third worst in new case rates among states and eighth worst in death rates.

Compare those rates with California, which has been a DeSantis target because it imposed extensive lockdowns and masking rules since early in the pandemic: 44.1 new daily cases per 100,000 residents over the last week, and 0.3 new deaths per 100,000.

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Florida’s per capita figures dating from the start of the pandemic, which the CDC pegs as Jan. 21, 2020, are also poor: 11,206 cases and 178 deaths per 100,000 population. California’s rates are 9,487 cases and 160 deaths per 100,000.

California and Florida both have seen a rise in new COVID cases
Although California (purple) and Florida (green) both have seen a rise in new COVID cases recently, Florida’s trendline is much the sharper.
(CDC)

In total, 63,600 Californians and 38,400 Floridians have died of COVID to date. To put things in perspective, if Florida had California’s death rate, some 3,700 fewer Floridians would be dead of COVID by now; if California had Florida’s rate, about 6,800 more Californians would have perished.

DeSantis’s claim to fame rests heavily on his having saved his state’s economy from the ravages of what he likes to call “Fauc-ism.” Let’s look at this record. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, Florida’s economy shrank 2.9% in 2020 as a whole, rather better than the overall shrinkage of 3.5% in the U.S. gross domestic product. California’s experience was about the same — a shrinkage of 2.8%.

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After running largely neck and neck through 2020, California ceded ground to Florida in the first quarter, which ended March 31, when Florida’s 7% GDP growth outpaced California’s 6.3%. But quarterly figures are notoriously volatile, and there’s no guarantee that those rankings will continue.

The question still remains — was it worth it for Florida to keep its bars and restaurants open by sacrificing, statistically speaking, thousands of lives? You be the judge.

What will be most important going forward is how states and their political leaders respond to the COVID crisis at hand — sharply rising caseloads and stagnating vaccination rates.

While DeSantis is making childish slogans out of Fauci’s last name, Florida’s hospitals are beginning to worry about being overwhelmed by COVID patients.

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University of Florida Health Jacksonville said it’s planning to set up treatment tents in its parking lot to manage a patient overflow after the number of COVID-19 patients doubled to 77 in a matter of weeks, with the prospect of exceeding its January peak of 125 patients in the weeks ahead.

Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, also a Republican, whose state has one of the highest rates of new infections in the country and one of the lowest vaccination rates, has gone on a statewide tour to persuade residents face to face to get their shots. Meanwhile, DeSantis rages about critical race theory and boasts about rescuing Floridians from mask mandates.

Perhaps, in sounding klaxon signals to a right-wing base and sacrificing the health of his constituents, DeSantis will show he knows something we don’t know about how to win a Republican nomination for president in these ideological splintered times. The question is: Do we want to know?

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