In a turnabout, Gov. DeSantis emphasizes COVID therapy over vaccines, face masks

Promises that masking and shots would restrain the pandemic haven’t panned out, he said

By: - August 12, 2021 2:47 pm

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces plans to distribute monoclonal antibodies as a COVID-19 therapy in Jacksonville on Aug. 12. 2021. Source: Screenshot/governor’s Facebook page.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is now de-emphasizing vaccines, social distancing, and face masks in combating COVID-19 in favor of therapies including monoclonal antibodies, which have shown promise in treating early infections.

While the White House and many states in the nation are focusing on getting the shots, the governor signaled a striking new development in his COVID policy. He positioned a mobile therapy unit in Jacksonville to administer the monoclonal treatments and plans to improve availability throughout Florida.

The governor made the comments during a news conference on Thursday.

DeSantis didn’t exactly discourage Floridians from vaccines or face masks and social distancing — practices that have emerged since the coronavirus first appeared early last year. But he did note Florida’s recent surge in COVID Delta variant caseloads and warned that permutations of the coronavirus likely are here to stay.

“The nonpharmaceutical interventions we’ve seen — remember, we were promised that they would end the pandemic — lockdowns, school closures, mandates — and it just hasn’t done that,” DeSantis said.

He noted the hypertransmissibility of the Delta variant.

“These waves are something that you have to deal with, with preventive — with early treatment,” he said, taking a beat to correct himself.

“Because, we could sit there and say, ‘We’ve shut down schools … it would go away.’ It won’t. That’s not true. It would be very damaging to society to do that and to our communities,” he continued.

“And so, early treatment, I think is probably the most effective thing you can do.”

Monoclonal antibodies are copies of antibodies produced by patients whose immune systems have fought off infections. A study by Tampa General Hospital and USF Morsani College of Medicine of 200 patients at high risk because of compromised immune systems, and who had mild-to-moderate symptoms, showed the therapy prevented hospitalizations in 70 percent of the cases, as the Phoenix has reported.

The treatment was among those administered to President Trump when he fell ill with COVID last October.

The therapy provides an “antibody cocktail” for patients with conditions like old age, kidney disease, diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular and lung disease, and sickle-cell anemia who are unable to produce their own antibodies, DeSantis said. Patients see improvement in their conditions within a day or two.

Officials are considering offering the treatment through already-existing sites administering tests and vaccines, the governor said.

The Florida Department of Health has not responded to a request on Thursday for details about the number of monoclonal treatments available.

In any event, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the treatment may be less effective against some COVID variants, including Delta.

Regarding masks, for example, the CDC has declared that they are effective against transmission, especially if worn by infected people to protect the uninfected. But more people would have to wear them, and that issue has become politicized, with Republicans more skeptical than Democrats about their use — and therefore more likely to need medical treatments.

The same goes for vaccines, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study.

Overall, 49.8 percent of eligible Floridians have been fully vaccinated, according to the CDC, lower than the national average of 50.3 percent and lower than percentages in 22 states and the District of Columbia.

The DeSantis administration has been locked in a political battle with local school districts over whether they may require all students to wear masks and has threatened their funding if they buck state rules forbidding mask mandates.

“We have people in society that are not vaccinated; we also have people that are vaccinated who are still testing positive. And so, either way, if you get in that situation, particularly in these high-risk categories, this [monoclonals] should be your stop. This is what you should be asking your doctor about,” he said.

State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees — who did not appear during the news conference, although Chief Medical Officer Dr. Kenneth Scheppke of the Florida Division of Emergency Management was there — may issue a standing order that would make the treatment available without a prescription, the governor said.

(Rivkees has rarely been observed in public since he diverged from DeSantis’ line on COVID in April 2020 on the need for continued social distancing.)

“This is just one thing we’re doing. We’re going to be doing more. But I do think that this is probably the best thing that we can do to reduce the number of people that require hospitalization,” DeSantis said.

The governor emphasized the importance of seeking treatment early in an infection.

“You don’t expect to the hospital until you start to feel really ill. But, on this, if you have those risks, if you can do it [receive the therapy] early, it really makes a difference,” he said.

“Obviously, if you’re higher risk and you want to avoid certain situations, you want to take personal mitigation, by all means do that,” DeSantis said.

“But just understand, with how contagious this is, and we’re seeing these waves in other parts of the world, and you will see them in other parts of the United States as the season changes, the fact of the matter is there’s going to be a baseline level of exposure to folks in the community.

“And so, let’s just make sure this is out there. Let’s make sure people have opportunities to be able to do it. I can tell you, it will absolutely make a difference in reducing the number of people going to hospitals.”

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Michael Moline
Michael Moline

Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal.