Anti-vaxxer in chief? DeSantis elevates vaccine skepticism to marquee campaign issue

Sarah Galloway supports former President Donald Trump, but questions his approach to COVID-19 vaccines.

“I didn’t take it, I don’t want my family to take it,” Galloway, who is married with three children, said of the COVID shot.

Galloway wants Trump to emulate Gov. Ron DeSantis, who initially promoted the vaccines before voicing increasing skepticism toward what he calls “the jab.”

“DeSantis, he originally said everybody should go get vaccinated … then he did a full circle switch and I’m like ‘Sweet, I’m glad he’s understanding this. Why isn’t Trump understanding this?” Galloway said recently after attending a GOP meeting where she lives in Southwest Florida.

Galloway’s vaccine views are common in the GOP.

Despite the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommending vaccination against COVID-19 for everyone six months and older, and insisting that the benefits outweigh any risks, just 40% of Republicans believe that and a third aren’t vaccinated, according to a recent Pew survey.

That deep COVID vaccine skepticism is permeating the presidential primary. It has become a leading topic of discussion for some candidates, making 2024 a watershed moment for the anti-vaccine movement.

Increasingly prominent in that movement is DeSantis, who may be the most influential public official in the country who has so thoroughly embraced anti-vaccine views. He is highlighting the issue on the campaign trail, questioning the safety of the COVID shot at recent events in Iowa and New Hampshire.

There are other public figures who are more closely associated with vaccine criticism, such as Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr., but none with the stature of DeSantis, the governor of the third largest state and a top contender for the GOP presidential nomination, trailing only Trump.

DeSantis’ posture towards the COVID vaccines began to shift just as buzz started increasing about his presidential prospects, and fits into a broader pattern of the governor positioning himself to the right of Trump on a host of issues.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis watches as nurse Christine Philips left, administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to Vera Leip, 88, a resident of John Knox Village, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla. Nursing home residents and health care workers in Florida began receiving the vaccine this week.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis watches as nurse Christine Philips left, administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to Vera Leip, 88, a resident of John Knox Village, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla. Nursing home residents and health care workers in Florida began receiving the vaccine this week.

DeSantis’ vaccine position doesn’t appear to be peeling away many Trump voters yet – the former president dominates in the polls – but he is tapping into an issue that has significant resonance on the right, and could help him make the case he is more in tune with the GOP base.

Public health experts are deeply worried, though.

The embrace of the anti-vaccine movement by major political figures such as DeSantis, and the movement’s growth, could have profound health impacts going forward if skepticism toward all vaccines increases.

“That can have huge problematic downstream consequences against the protection of society against various vaccine-preventable diseases,” said Timothy Callaghan, a professor of health policy and politics at Boston University who studies vaccine hesitancy.

The governor’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

‘A really historic day’

Developed during the Trump administration under the Operation Warp Speed program, a pair of COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna were granted emergency use authorization by the Food and Drug Administration in December of 2020, less than a year after the first COVID case was confirmed in the United States.

DeSantis participated in a news conference at Tampa General Hospital on Dec. 14, 2020 where a nurse was one of the first people in Florida to receive a COVID vaccine.

“Today was a really historic day,” DeSantis said at the time.

Florida already had more than one million COVID cases at that point, and 20,133 deaths related to the virus.

DeSantis toured the state relentlessly over the next weeks and months, often appearing at multiple vaccination sites a day to tout the shot.

On Jan. 22, 2021, DeSantis held an event broadcast live on Fox News where a World War II veteran became the one millionth vaccinated Florida senior. DeSantis was vaccinated in April of that year, receiving the one dose Johnson & Johnson shot.

Before taking the vaccine, DeSantis played up it’s effectiveness amid reports that the J&J shot didn’t confer as much protection as other vaccines.

“In reality, it was 100% effective at preventing death and a serious illness, hospitalization,” DeSantis said, adding: “We’re trying to save lives, and that’s what the J&J has been proven to do.”

It wasn’t long before DeSantis’ approach to the COVID vaccine began to change, though.

DeSantis called the Florida Legislature into special session in November of 2021 to pass a series of bills aimed at undermining a federal rule requiring employees at larger companies to get vaccinated or submit to weekly COVID tests.

“Nobody in Florida should be losing their jobs over these jabs,” DeSantis declared.

In this screenshot, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears on Fox & Friends chaperoning 100-year-old Henry Sayler as he gets what DeSantis said may be the millionth senior COVID-19 vaccination in the state.

In this screenshot, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis appears on Fox & Friends chaperoning 100-year-old Henry Sayler as he gets what DeSantis said may be the millionth senior COVID-19 vaccination in the state.

DeSantis also hired Dr. Joseph Ladapo – a COVID vaccine critic – as the state’s new surgeon general and declined to say during a Fox News interview whether he’d received the booster shot.

Anti-vaccine crusader

DeSantis’ flirtation with the anti-vaccine movement became a full-blown embrace in 2022.

Last May, Florida became the first state in the nation to recommend that healthy children not be vaccinated against COVID-19, stunning many health professionals around the state.

Then, in October, Ladapo’s office announced it conducted a study determining men ages 18 to 39 are at higher risk of developing a heart condition if they take the COVID vaccine, and recommended they not get the shot.

Leading health experts said the study’s methodology was flawed, and it later was revealed that Ladapo edited the study to remove data that contradicted his conclusions.

“That was roundly refuted by the scientific community,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, who served on the Food and Drug Administration advisory panel that approved the COVID vaccines. “That should have been an embarrassment to (DeSantis) and his surgeon general.”

Yet DeSantis continues to reference the study, mentioning it a town hall event recently in New Hampshire, which Offit called “shameful.”

“You don’t get to make it up,” Offit said.

In December, DeSantis held a roundtable discussion with contrarian doctors and scientists who questioned the safety of COVID vaccines.

DeSantis announced that he was requesting a statewide grand jury probe of vaccine manufacturers to investigate potential “crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

DeSantis launched his presidential campaign a few months later. Having a top presidential candidate championing anti-vaccine sentiment appears to be unprecedented.

It’s a frightening notion for those who have dedicated their careers to easing vaccine hesitancy.

“It’s scary as hell that vaccines have become this political,” said Professor Richard Carpiano, a professor of public policy at the University of California Riverside who studies vaccine hesitancy. “They never should have been political to begin with, but the fact it’s some sort of leveraged issue that’s up there with immigration, crime – that’s scary.”

Campaign highlights COVID views

DeSantis is tapping into a deep GOP skepticism toward the COVID vaccines.

During a town hall event in New Hampshire on June 27, a woman in the crowd told DeSantis that she and her husband had been vaccinated “and our health hasn’t been the same since.”

The audience member asked DeSantis how he would ensure “we’re getting accurate and truthful information” so people aren’t “forced into a decision based on fear.”

DeSantis took the opportunity to slam the CDC and FDA and raise concerns about the vaccines. He noted that television advertisements for prescription drugs include potential health risks.

“They list all the possible side effects, right?” DeSantis said. “I mean that’s how they do the drug commercials, and yet they’re having us believe that the COVID jab had nothing at all that ever came? That’s a lie and we all know it.”

Public health authorities have warned of potential side effects from COVID vaccines, but say they tend to be relatively minor and point to data indicating these risks are outweighed by the benefits of being vaccinated, which significantly lowers the chances of hospitalization or death.

DeSantis continues to question the safety of the shots, though, telling former Fox News host Tucker Carlson during an interview in Iowa on July 14 that: “the fact that they censored dissent on COVID means that some people took some of these booster shots when they didn’t need to and they ended up having an adverse reaction. So it had major, major impact.”

Polling data shows how vaccines views increasingly correlate with an individual’s political affiliation.

According to a Pew survey released in May, 70% of U.S. adults who haven’t received the COVID vaccine are Republican.

Among Americans 65 and older, just 3% of Democrats aren’t vaccinated compared to 20% of Republicans.

Vaccine hesitancy has been around since the invention of vaccines, experts say, but it has never been this partisan.

Offit, who wrote a book about the anti-vaccine movement, noted that anti-vaccine leagues formed to oppose the Small Pox vaccine in the 1800s. More recently, anti-vaccine sentiment has been stoked by the debunked claim that vaccines cause autism.

Historically, vaccine critics could be found on both the right and left.

“Now it has shifted wildly to the right,” Offit said, noting: “This is the first disease virus in humankind where you are more likely to die based on your political affiliation.”

Studies suggest politics of vaccine led to more deaths

On Monday, the Journal JAMA Internal Medicine published a study backing up that partisan divide.

It determined that the politicization of the vaccine may be the cause of a higher rate of excess deaths among registered Republicans in Florida and Ohio during the pandemic. Yale University researchers examined the deaths among Democrats and Republicans when the vaccine was released and recommended for all adults in April 2021 and cross-linked the data to party registration records.

While the study did not directly attribute the excess mortality to COVID-19, researchers found partisan “factors in the severity and trajectory of the pandemic.”

A recent New York Times investigation also concluded that while the state’s death rate during the pandemic ended up better than the national average, DeSantis’ approach to vaccinations “proved deeply flawed” as he went from supporting vaccines to deriding them.

“While Florida was an early leader in the share of residents older than 65 who were vaccinated, it had fallen to the middle of the pack by the end of July 2021. When it came to younger residents, Florida lagged behind the national average in every age group,” the story stated.

“That left the state particularly vulnerable when the delta variant hit that month. Floridians died at a higher rate, adjusted for age, than residents of almost any other state during the delta wave, according to the Times analysis. With less than 7% of the nation’s population, Florida accounted for 14% of deaths between the start of July and the end of October.”

The Times found that the vast majority of the 23,000 Floridians who died were either unvaccinated or had no completed the two-dose inoculation despite DeSantis declaring that “our entire vulnerable population has basically been vaccinated. About 9,000 of those who died were younger than 65.

More: Who is running for president in 2024 election? Closer look at every candidate so far.

GOP embraces anti-vax views

Criticism of the vaccines is particularly strong in far-right circles, but has been moving closer to the GOP mainstream.

The Republican Party in Brevard County, Florida, passed a resolution earlier this month describing the COVID vaccines as “biological and technological weapons” and asking DeSantis to ban them in Florida.

Similar resolutions have been approved by GOP officials in at least seven other counties around Florida.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser and an influential figure on the far right who lives in Sarasota county in Southwest Florida, recently started 4thePURE, a website devoted to connecting unvaccinated people for dates, blood donations and even fertility issues.

Vic Mellor, a close associate of Flynn’s who also lives in Sarasota County, is financing a health care clinic – We The People Clinic – in Venice that will cater to people who are unvaccinated.

“There’s very few pediatricians in the area that don’t talk or require the jab,” Mellor said, adding: “Kids absolutely should not be getting vaccinated, it’s criminal if you ask me.”

Flynn and Mellor are Trump supporters, but Mellor wants Trump to come out forcefully against the COVID vaccine, which he has shied away from discussing.

Beyond flu shots: Older Americans to access more vaccines than ever. Will they take them?

Asked by Fox News host Bret Baier in June if the COVID vaccines worked, Trump said “I really don’t want to talk about it because, as a Republican, it’s not a great thing to talk about.”

Pressed by Baier, Trump said “people love the vaccines and people hate the vaccines.”

Mellor said Trump’s vaccine position is a liability.

“The vaccines, I’m not going to say it’s not hurting Trump right now,” Mellor said. “He has to come out and say something, a different stance, a stronger stance. Come out and tell the truth. Everyone would understand I was listening to my experts, the experts were wrong.”

Do vaccines drive votes?

Flynn and Mellor have supported a surge in far-right political activity in Sarasota County that included an effort to takeover Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a public hospital.

A trio of conservative candidates running on a “health freedom” platform won seats on the hospital board and pushed for an audit of COVID policies.

Dr. Richard Rehmeyer, a long-time Republican, lost his seat on the SMH board to a health freedom candidate.

Rehmeyer noted that SMH had to dramatically expanded the number of intensive care unit beds during the height of the pandemic to treat severely ill COVID patients, and most of the COVID patients were unvaccinated.

“Staff members were absolutely breaking their back working double and triple shifts trying to keep people alive and the people they were trying to keep alive were the ones who refused to get the vaccine,” he said. “How do you think psychologically that felt?”

That politicians such as DeSantis have stoked anti-vaccine sentiment is “disgusting” said Rehmeyer, a retired ear, nose and throat surgeon.

It’s not clear that anti-vaccine politics will end up helping DeSantis.

New Hampshire GOP Chair Chris Ager said DeSantis’ vaccine views are in tune with many GOP primary voters.

“It may be one of his strongest points that resonates with a lot of people, whether they’re his supporters or not,” Ager said.

But polls indicate that COVID isn’t a top issue for primary voters, and Ager said that’s been his experience talking to voters. That could be a big problem for DeSantis, whose reputation largely was built on his COVID policies.

“It doesn’t’ appear to be at the top of the list for most people,” Ager said.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Florida Gov. DeSantis now one of nation’s top COVID, vaccine skeptics

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