DeSantis, in rhetorical shift, de-emphasizes promotion of COVID vaccines

No word on whether gov plans to take a booster shot when available

By: - October 18, 2021 4:56 pm

“Don’t make the vaccine divisive? You are trying to take people’s jobs away over this issue! You are trying to plunge people into destitution! You are taking away their livelihoods. Nobody else is doing that,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said of President Biden on Oct. 15, 2021. Source: Screenshot/DeSantis Rumble

With booster doses of the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccines likely coming soon (Pfizer doses are already available), aides to Gov. Ron DeSantis aren’t saying whether the governor will take advantage.

“I do not have any details to share about the governor’s personal medical decisions. As the governor has said, each person should be able to make his or her own informed choices,” Press Secretary Christina Pushaw said via email last week in response to a question from the Phoenix.

DeSantis was more open about his plans last winter, when he was actively promoting the then-newly available vaccines and traveling the state opening vaccination clinics. Overall, 58.9 percent of Floridians are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, according to CDC data, above the national average of 57 percent. But several other states have higher vaccination rates, including New York and California.

DeSantis said in February that he would take the J&J shot when his age group became eligible and even teased that he might do it on camera but, amid growing skepticism about the vaccines among core Republican voters, in April did so privately. Under federal guidelines, he’ll be eligible for a J&J booster as soon as they become available.

Officially, the administration continues to encourage people to get vaccinated, but these days DeSantis spends more time fighting with the Biden administration, local governments, school boards, and private businesses over whether they can require proof of vaccination for workers and customers.

At times, DeSantis appeared to undermine confidence in vaccines, not least by elevating Joseph Ladapo — who has been openly skeptical of the federal public health response to the virus — to the office of surgeon general, running the Florida Department of Health.

“These vaccines have provided benefit to individuals to reduce severity of illness — less likely to hospitalize, less likely to die. I think the data’s very clear on that. However, the vaccines are not providing the type of public benefit in terms of stopping transmission that we had hoped,” DeSantis said recently.

To Democratic House co-leader Evan Jenne of Broward County, the governor’s combativeness  reflects DeSantis’ appeal to base GOP voters (many of whom suffer a range of conspiracy theories including the Big Lie that Trump really won last year’s election. Note that Republican National Committee member Peter Feaman of Florida this summer called the vaccines “the mark of the Beast,” as CNN reported.)

“He needs to hold that base together — not only for 2022 and his reelection bid, not just then. He needs to hold them together for another two years after that when he runs for president,” Jenne said during a Zoom conference with reporters on Monday.

DeSantis disavows holding any ambitions beyond reelection but Jenne doesn’t buy it.

Rep. Evan Jenne. Credit: Florida House

“It is what it is. When you’re the governor of Florida, not many of your constituents can be found in Salt Lake City,” Jenne said. He referred to a speech the governor gave there in July before the American Legislative Exchange Council, in which DeSantis mocked the CDC, according to a report in The Salt Lake City Tribune. The governor has made a series of out-of-state fundraising jaunts.


Monoclonal antibodies have proven an effective treatment for COVID if administered early, and DeSantis has been aggressively pitching them since August, opening clinics where the treatments are available free of charge. Additionally, Merck’s new COVID pill, molnupiravir, is awaiting regulatory approval.

Again, in launching the monoclonal campaign the governor appeared dismissive of additional U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.

“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 at the time.

The governor accuses President Biden of politicizing COVID.

“Don’t make the vaccine divisive!” he exclaimed during a news conference Friday in Naples.

“You are trying to take people’s jobs away over this issue! You are trying to plunge people into destitution! You are taking away their livelihoods. Nobody else is doing that,” he said of Biden.

Ladapo has disparaged the vaccines, too — especially the idea of mandating them.

“You exert pressure and people change behavior. That’s true for many different things,” the doctor said during a joint appearance with DeSantis.

“But mandates are really about, they’re about … who controls whose life, you know? They’re about whether kids belong to the parents or whether they’re instruments of the state in terms of some of these mandates related to masks.”

DeSantis argues that vaccine mandates don’t account for natural immunity acquired through surviving infection, including among first responders exposed on the job. Nationally, first responders appear more vaccine averse than the general public, according to a U.S. News and World Affairs report.

The CDC acknowledges that coronavirus variants can break through the vaccines’ protections but still recommends taking the shots, arguing that they provide more robust protection than natural immunity does.

The agency points to a study of previously infected people in Kentucky. Those not vaccinated had 2.34 times the odds of reinfection compared with those who were fully vaccinated. “If you have had COVID-19 before, please still get vaccinated,” said CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky.

The Ivy League-educated governor keeps himself well informed about pandemic data, medical studies, and regulatory developments, according to spokeswoman Pushaw, and the Department of Health maintains a “vaccine locator” on its website. The administration still dispatches mobile vaccine clinics around the state.

As for DeSantis’ own plans for a booster shot, Pushaw had this to say:

“Gov. DeSantis chose to get the COVID-19 vaccine several months ago, after his age group became eligible. As he has said, he made that choice because of evidence that getting vaccinated lowers an individual’s risk of becoming seriously ill from the virus.

“But the right choice for him, or even for most people, is not necessarily the right choice for everyone. COVID-19 vaccines should be available to all (well, all who are eligible under the FDA’s authorization) and mandated for none.”

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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. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.