How Ron DeSantis transformed into an anti-public health crusader

“In March 2020, in the uncertain first weeks of the pandemic, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acted and talked like most other politicians. He shut down public schools and prohibited visitors at nursing homes. He expanded testing capacity and closed parks out of what he called a need to meet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines on social distancing. By early April, he had issued his own version of a stay-at-home order and was urging his state’s residents to stay “spiritually together, but to remain socially distant.”

Three years later, DeSantis has transformed himself into the face of an anti-“woke,” anti-public health movement that blossomed during the pandemic — the leader of an administration that was willing to not only defy the public health consensus but to control and manipulate information in order to advance its narrative of a crisis that has killed more than 1.1 million Americans, including more than 87,000 Floridians.

A report this month from the Tampa Bay Time revealed that DeSantis’s state surgeon general had altered scientific data in order to justify his official position that young men should not receive the Covid-19 vaccine. DeSantis, who has criticized former President Donald Trump for deferring to public health officials like Anthony Fauci, has embraced conspiratorial talking points. He has suggested profits and not public health drove the Covid vaccine campaign and convened a state grand jury to investigate any “misconduct” on the part of drug manufacturers and the scientific community related to the vaccines.”

“What’s clear is something changed, and quickly. Within a month of pleading with Floridians to remain socially distant, DeSantis had begun to reopen the state’s economy. As months went by, he became more brazen in his willingness to bend the truth around Covid and staffed his administration accordingly. Within a year, he had hired a Covid vaccine skeptic as his surgeon general, who would later be accused of altering study data to advance that agenda, and was fighting cruise ships over their plans to impose vaccine mandates for their passengers.”

“In March and April, the governor’s approval ratings sagged. For those who wanted him to be aggressive in fighting Covid-19, he was not doing enough. For the conservative voters beginning to believe an alternative narrative of the pandemic, his response was an overreaction. As he fumbled through the first few weeks of Covid-19, DeSantis seemed to satisfy no one.

So the governor picked a lane. DeSantis sided with the Republican base upon which he would depend for his political future.

One public health expert who spoke directly with DeSantis around that time, who, like others I interviewed, did not want to be quoted by name for fear of retribution, said the governor referred specifically to senior residents in conservative areas like the Villages as “my people” and appeared preoccupied most with them when considering the response to the coronavirus. Later on, his vaccine-skeptical agenda reflected the mood of many conservative voters, who had glommed onto mischaracterizations about the risks of Covid-19 and conspiracy theories about the vaccines meant to stop it.

DeSantis’s pandemic response helped make him into a national figure, valorized among conservatives and villainized by Democrats and many public health experts.”

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