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Florida’s Big Lie on vaccines is a scary preview of how GOP would run America

Ron DeSantis's Florida puts the health of its citizens at risk, bucking the science on COVID-19 vaccine.

Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and Gov. Ron DeSantis at a news conference in West Palm Beach, Fla., on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.Read moreJoe Cavaretta / MCT

The initial, overrepeated mantra of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign was that “Florida is the state where ‘woke’ goes to die.” Now, a growing number of scientists and public-health experts are worried that the governor of America’s third-largest state may be adding a second risk of death to that list.

His own citizens.

In what should be seen as an alarming moment in America’s descent into misinformation and political demagoguery, DeSantis’ hand-picked state surgeon general, Joseph Ladapo, is telling Florida residents under age 65 to avoid a new anti-COVID booster vaccine. That’s the exact opposite of what the nation’s public-health agencies and most experts are recommending to prevent a fall 2023 resurgence of the pandemic. Our would-be POTUS DeSantis is totally on board with his anti-vax medical adviser, claiming he won’t allow healthy Floridians to be “guinea pigs.”

But history and science suggest that some folks who refuse to become “guinea pigs” could become corpses, or will suffer the debilitating impact of long COVID. Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, had two words for the Washington Post about Florida’s anti-vaccine guidance: “It’s dangerous.”

Offit told the newspaper there’s legitimate debate over who should be prioritized for receiving the new booster — reformulated to attack recent, dominant strains of the coronavirus — but that what Ladapo and DeSantis are doing is casting deeper and unwarranted doubt on the effacy of COVID-19 vaccines more generally. “They have been given a platform and abused it,” he said.

Indeed, at a moment when objective testing — such as levels of the coronavirus in municipal sewage wastewater — is showing a COVID-19 spike equal to some of the worst peaks in 2020 and 2021, Florida is already at severe risk. In fact, the state with one of the five oldest populations in the United States is currently leading the nation in new COVID-19 hospitalizations, with 11.81 per 100,000 residents, and those numbers have been increasing.

Given the health danger, it’s sad but not a total surprise that DeSantis — whose White House bid is badly foundering and trails far behind Donald Trump — would demagogue around vaccines. It was the COVID-19 crisis in 2020 that thrust the then-first-term GOP governor onto the national stage, with his aggressive stance on reopening schools and businesses — popular with voters even if the science is mixed. But DeSantis — like Trump and other top Republicans — initially encouraged the initial vaccine when it was introduced in December 2020. Now, the Florida governor panders to an increasingly conspiratorial and anti-science base of the GOP primary electorate.

If it were an isolated incident, Florida’s stance in opposition to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration would be viewed as a stunning assault on the nation’s public-health infrastructure. But it’s not an isolated incident. Rather, it’s another glimpse — courtesy of authoritarian governors and lawmakers in Florida, and also the nation’s second-largest state in Texas, and elsewhere — of the looming disaster for democracy if Republicans retake the White House on Jan. 20, 2025.

The chances of that happening are 50-50, or better. Most recent polls show that Trump — the overwhelming favorite to win the Republican nomination for the third straight time despite his 91 felony charges — is in a dead heat with President Joe Biden, and that’s not even accounting for the GOP advantage in the Electoral College. Meanwhile, the Beltway-based media continues to do a terrible job conveying the stakes for democracy in the 2024 election — yet again on Sunday when Kristen Welker, the new host of NBC News’ Meet the Press, conducted a debut interview with Trump that generally platformed his authoritarianism and allowed him to spout nonsense on how he’d bring peace to Ukraine and bridge the abortion divide, with too little pushback. Instead, journalists could be conveying the risk to the American Experiment by looking at how current Republicans govern.

Under the sway of DeSantis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, and far-right lawmakers in Wisconsin and elsewhere, red states have become laboratories of autocracy. They’ve laid the groundwork for anti-democratic rule in Washington by inventing voter-fraud scandals (DeSantis’ election police) and undoing the results of democratic elections (the unwarranted removal of two Florida elected prosecutors). Both DeSantis and Abbott endorse sometimes violent demonization of The Other, with their migrant flights and buses and a killer barrier against refugees in the Rio Grande. Republicans politicize justice by going after the innocent (Wisconsin justice Janet Protasiewicz) and clearing the guilty (Texas AG Ken Paxton). Their opposition to knowledge, science, and the tolerance that DeSantis calls “woke” is destroying education, with 47% of Florida’s public college professors looking for work in other states.

» READ MORE: America is drunk on a warped idea of freedom, and now it’s killing people | Will Bunch

On one level, the current anti-vax follies in the Sunshine State are a grim warning of how the United States might respond — or not respond — to the next pandemic that arrives on our shores. But the dangerous doctoring of Ladapo also points to something even more insidious: the GOP promise, through a formal agenda known as Project 2025, to “demolish the administrative state” by undoing civil service protection, so that career servants and experts could be replaced with true believers in the religion of Trumpism.

That would mean that key federal decisions about your health and welfare would be made by zealots like Ladapo, who was hired in 2022 by DeSantis as the state’s top health official even after his colleagues at the University of California-Los Angeles said the surgeon exaggerated his own experiences in treating COVID-19 and that they wouldn’t recommend him for the Florida post because he had “created stress and acrimony” with his anti-vaccine views.

It wasn’t a total surprise, then, that a special task force at the University of Florida, where Ladapo was given a tenured faculty post, found that the state’s top doc used flawed science and may have violated the school’s integrity rules when he recommended that men under 40 should not take the then-current iteration of the COVID-19 vaccine. The panel found that his recommendation — claiming an increased risk of heart problems — was based on a small sample studied with shaky methodology.

And yet Ladapo was not disciplined. Instead, he has become point man for DeSantis’ 90-degree right-turn on vaccine science, which has coincided with his run for the presidency. The Florida governor’s early support for COVID-19 vaccines was reflected in the state’s early 70% vaccination rate, on par with the rest of the United States. That was before DeSantis stuck his finger in the wind and grasped that public-health measures and the public face of those interventions, Dr. Anthony Fauci, were increasingly seen by core GOP voters as threats to liberty from “a deep state.” Now, only 12% of Floridians received the most recent booster shot, compared to 17% nationwide.

An in-depth analysis by the New York Times earlier this year found that Florida’s drop-off in vaccinations left the state ill-prepared when the Delta variant of COVID-19 hit in late 2021. During those months, the newspaper found, Florida actually had a higher death rate than almost any other state. The 23,000 who died in Florida included 9,000 people under age 65, the group that Ladapo now urges not to get a booster; most of those who succumbed, according to the Times, were unvaccinated or had not received the second dose.

How many thousands more of Floridians will die needlessly this fall because of the politically poisonous Big Lie about vaccines from DeSantis and Ladapo? In fact, the current anti-vaccine and anti-federal government rhetoric is so extreme that public health experts are deeply concerned they’ll be a drop in other vaccines like the flu shot or protection against respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) headed into the winter virus season. That could be disastrous in a state with so many elderly residents.

These are the stakes, looking ahead to next year’s election. We don’t have to speculate about what Republican government in 2025 and beyond would look like. Just look south to Florida, an authoritarian regime where knowledge and expertise are increasingly despised, cruelty is the point of government, and needless death and despair is on the rise. Meanwhile, pray for the souls of those swayed by the cynical anti-science of DeSantis and Ladapo. They are the only real “guinea pigs” here.

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