DeSantis flirts with the anti-vaccine crowd

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MIAMI — Ron DeSantis isn't anti-vaccine. But he has started standing shoulder-to-shoulder with those who are.

The Florida governor’s clear and unadulterated public messaging about the need for vaccines has become more diluted in recent months, culminating with a press conference he held this week to bash President Joe Biden’s new vaccine mandate plan — and threaten to fine cities and counties that impose their own mandates.

The event in the small Florida town of Newberry featured two anti-vaccine workers, one of whom falsely claimed he wouldn’t get a shot because it “changes your RNA.” DeSantis at the time said nothing about the misinformation, a standard anti-vaccine talking point, and subsequently refused to say why he didn’t correct the falsehood.

“I don't even remember him saying that, so it's not anything I've said,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a press conference when asked about the remarks made the day before. DeSantis then went on to discuss the benefits of vaccinations.

Another speaker DeSantis invited suggested that vaccines were deadly without mentioning how rare that is or how far more unvaccinated people die of Covid. "My body, my choice,” she said, adopting the slogan of abortion rights advocates.

The inclusion of anti-vaccine misinformation at a DeSantis press conference marks a major departure from the stronger and more direct case he made for vaccines earlier in the year. The shift by the Republican governor — considered a leading contender for the 2024 presidential primary — coincides with more vocal anti-vaccine voices in the GOP, who went so far as to boo former President Donald Trump for telling people in Alabama to “take the vaccines.”

Biden’s sweeping push to require inoculations for 100 million Americans has given a pathway for mainstream GOP leaders to build support with the anti-vaccine crowd — while still broadly supporting vaccines. Other Republican governors, even in states where vaccine mandates have been employed, were similarly quick to push back on Biden’s plans.

DeSantis has been drifting in that direction for months. As the pace of vaccinations slowed both in Florida and across the nation, and as the most devastating Covid wave to hit Florida started to swamp the state over the summer, DeSantis’ comments about the need for more shots became more nuanced. That took a back seat to his promotion of monoclonal antibody treatments like Regeneron, which he started in earnest in mid-August as the state was breaking records for new infections and hospitalizations.

“There is no question that the back-and-forth stance that [DeSantis] is taking is confusing his followers,” said Aileen Marty, a Florida International University epidemiologist. “This is one of the worst infectious diseases the human race has dealt with in a long time. And in a pandemic, it causes stress, anxiety and fear. And a key way that people deal with that is denial. So when you vocalize things that feed on people’s denialism of a threat, you disarm them from doing what they need to do to actually reduce their risk. That’s just not a good thing.”

It's not that DeSantis opposes vaccines — he got one himself — or that he has spoken negatively about them. But his strident opposition to vaccine mandates has made his position align more closely than ever with people who are anti-vaccine and those who don’t want to get shots.

That opposition follows the governor’s rejection of Covid-related restrictions of any kind, from banning vaccine passports to prohibiting local school districts from imposing mask mandates that do not include opt-outs for parents. As Covid casualties rose, the toll of it all chipped away at the governor’s popularity in the state as he faces reelection in 2022.

At the same time, however, DeSantis’ clashes with Biden and his libertarian approach to Covid has made him intensely popular among hardcore conservatives, putting the Florida governor in the top tier of potential 2024 GOP presidential candidates if Trump does not run.

The governor’s spokesperson, Christina Pushaw, said no one who viewed DeSantis’ more than 50 public appearances promoting vaccinations would accept that the governor believes vaccines change people’s molecular structure.

“Vaccination does provide good protection against severe outcomes for fully vaccinated people,” she said. “However, the science behind vaccines does not support the Biden Administration’s vaccine mandates.”

DeSantis’ administration has pushed back on the suggestion that anti-vaccine sentiment and vaccine hesitancy are largely a conservative phenomenon, noting that many of Florida’s unvaccinated also tend to be young or nonwhite, two demographics that tend to disproportionately vote Democrat.

Some of DeSantis’ rhetoric also concerned experts in recent weeks when, for instance, he bemoaned that vaccines haven’t achieved herd immunity as promised and kept mentioning “breakthrough” infections happening among those who are vaccinated, even though data indicates such cases are rare.

Critics have also noted that the governor’s Twitter account hadn’t posted about “vaccines” or “vaccinations” since the spring, after he embarked on a monthslong drive to get shots for seniors when supplies were limited.

The governor began to embrace a more complicated position on vaccines during the spring legislative session when he pushed through a ban on so-called vaccine passports that require people to show proof of shots before accessing a business or government service. But DeSantis later contradicted his initial justification of that prohibition when he attempted to use the vaccine passport ban as the legal foundation for fining cities for implementing vaccine mandates.

The day after he signed the bill into law, May 4, DeSantis insisted at a press conference that it only applied to people who wanted “to just do basic things: restaurant, movie, airplane” or a ride on a cruise ship (one cruise line has successfully sued to block the law so far). He made the remarks in response to a reporter’s question about whether vaccination status could be used as an employment issue by a boss.

“The bill did not discuss and did not get into employment mandates. … And my view would be, you know, it wouldn't be appropriate to mandate or prohibit either in either direction,” DeSantis said. “But I think to mandate it or prohibit it, either way, would not be something we'd do. But the vaccine passport, just to be clear, it did not delve into the employment context.”

On Monday, DeSantis took the opposite position about the law he signed, claiming it allowed him to fine local governments that require vaccinations as a condition of their employment.

“Nobody should lose their job over this issue,” DeSantis said, seeking to frame the debate as a worker’s rights issue.

Asked about the change of heart over the scope of the law, Pushaw said “the governor’s remarks from May were made long before anyone had proposed the kind of sweeping overreach and mass violation of medical privacy that we have seen in recent days, most notably with the Biden Administration’s announcement.”

Earlier this month, DeSantis made another reversal in his messaging about vaccines. On Sept. 3, he said at another press conference that a person’s decision not to get vaccinated “really doesn’t impact me or anyone else.” But unvaccinated people are a risk to others because they can be more likely to contract and spread Covid. DeSantis days later denied making the remarks when questioned by a reporter.

The DNC gleefully highlighted the controversy in a Twitter video juxtaposing the now-and-then contradictions by the governor.

DeSantis on Tuesday predicted that Biden’s “idea of using government coercion and force” for vaccinations “is going to backfire.” And the governor pointed out that there was a correlation between the Biden administration’s decision to pause the distribution of Johnson & Johnson shots April 13 and a sharp decline in new vaccinations.

“The J&J pause caused it to crash,” DeSantis said. “That was a huge mistake that was made.”

A poll released by Quinnipiac University in late August found that 74 percent of Floridians said they had either gotten a shot or planned to get one. Sixty-two percent of those surveyed supported a vaccine mandate for health care workers and 60 percent supported mandates for teachers, although the number fell to only 50 percent support for employees of other businesses.

More than 49,000 Floridians have died from coronavirus since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since late July, more than 10,000 deaths — or 20 percent of the overall total — have been added to the toll. In terms of Covid death rates, Florida ranks 12th highest in the nation. It was 27th highest in February, before the Delta variant ravaged the state.

The latest CDC numbers show that more than 11.8 million Floridians are fully vaccinated — about 55.2 percent of the population. That’s higher than any other state in the South other than Virginia and 21st out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Christian Zeigler, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, defended DeSantis’ record, saying the governor has been realistic about the dangers of the disease and the power of government to stop it.

“The media, Democrats and critics are trying to tie him or define him as anti-vaxx,” Zeigler said, “even though he was previously attacked for being pro-vaxx and is simply moving us forward from a pandemic that is unsustainable in permanent mode.”

Arek Sarkissian contributed to this report.

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