DeSantis relies on vaccine skepticism to energize a struggling campaign | ET REALITY

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Governor Ron DeSantis He had hoped his response to the coronavirus pandemic, which helped propel him to a resounding re-election in Florida last year, would produce similar results in the Republican presidential primaries.

But despite leaning on his record on Covid-19, DeSantis remains adrift in the polls and far behind former President Donald J. Trump, whose administration he has criticized for his handling of the pandemic. DeSantis points to how he guided Florida through the pandemic — reopening schools and businesses early and prohibiting local governments and businesses from imposing mask and vaccine mandates — as a model for the nation.

While Trump recently warned against the return of “Covid hysteria,” his administration led the rapid development of Covid-19 vaccines that many Republicans now question. Studies show that vaccines prevented millions of deaths and hospitalizations in the United States. But over the summer, Trump admitted to Fox News that the shooting “wasn’t a big thing to talk about” in his party.

DeSantis has tried to exploit that anti-vaccine sentiment as a way to alienate primary voters from Trump, publicly casting doubt on its safety and effectiveness against the coronavirus. Scientific experts have called his views (and his administration’s decision to recommend that Floridians under 65 not receive the updated Covid-19 vaccine) as dangerous and extreme, even as many acknowledge that school closures to that DeSantis opposed went on for too long in some states.

On Wednesday, DeSantis tried again to rally vaccine-skeptical voters to his side, leading a “Medical Freedom” town hall at a ski resort in Manchester, NH, alongside Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo. During the event, which was organized by DeSantis’ super PAC, the Florida governor insisted that federal public health agencies had been talking “nonsense” during the pandemic and needed a complete overhaul.

He claimed that Covid shots were rolled out without adequate clinical studies and that federal officials had lied or were completely wrong about the benefits and risks, a view that has been roundly condemned by a wide range of public health experts, academics and scientists. . .

“We know the federal government screwed up on this in a lot of different ways and we need a reckoning,” the governor said.

DeSantis has had little success in making his criticism of the Trump administration’s Covid-19 policies stick, demonstrating the former president’s remarkable resilience with Republicans in the face of criminal indictments, mounting attacks from rival candidates and his own mistakes. verbal.

In interviews with The New York Times in the early nomination states, many voters have said they do not blame Trump for his response to a new and unknown virus, saying he did the best he could in an uncertain situation. These attitudes are common even among some of DeSantis’ supporters.

“I’m always inclined to soften President Trump a little bit on the epidemic because he was listening to people who supposedly knew what they were talking about,” said Richard Merkt, 74, who attended the town hall Wednesday and said he plan to vote. for DeSantis in the New Hampshire primary. Merkt is a former New Jersey assemblyman who ran for office in New Hampshire, where he retired.

Bob Wolf, an undecided voter from Iowa, said he admired DeSantis’ handling of the pandemic but did not blame Trump. “When Trump was in charge, I don’t think everyone knew what the facts were,” Wolf, a 44-year-old firefighter, said in an interview this fall.

Still, DeSantis is clinging to his Covid policies as a pillar of a campaign.

In September, he and Dr. Ladapo recommended that Floridians under 65 not receive the updated Covid vaccine that targets the newer variants of the virus. That guidance contradicted advice from the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which had recommended the vaccine for most Americans six months and older.

At the town hall, Dr. Ladapo praised Mr. DeSantis.

“Reading the data, coming to a conclusion, knowing that that conclusion is right and all these Harvard PhDs and MDs are wrong? That takes courage,” said Dr. Ladapo, who also has degrees from Harvard.

Florida was an early leader in vaccinating older residents against Covid, but achieved much lower vaccination rates for younger age groups as the governor transitioned from a vocal advocate to a vaccine skeptic. A New York Times analysis from July found that, unlike the country as a whole, Florida lost more lives to Covid after vaccines became available to all adults, not before.

DeSantis has suggested that he is the only Republican who can appeal to general election voters who are angry about the government’s response to the pandemic, particularly with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a prominent anti-vaccine activist and conspiracy theorist, in the race. as a third party candidate.

“RFK Jr. will be a vessel for anti-lockdown and anti-Fauci voters, if Trump is the nominee,” DeSantis said last month, referring to Anthony S. Fauci, the country’s former top infectious disease expert, to who said he should be prosecuted. “If I’m the nominee, everyone goes to me.”

When Kennedy was still running in the Democratic primary against President Biden, DeSantis even He suggested that the veteran liberal could have a place in his presidential administration, a clear sign that he hoped to court Kennedy supporters who share his views on vaccines.

But so far, DeSantis’ efforts to break through the Republican field have failed.

Although the Florida governor generally has high favorability ratings among Republican voters, Trump has maintained his dominant lead in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. A recent poll showed that former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina had caught up with DeSantis in Iowa, where she has staked her entire campaign. Poll averages put Ms. Haley ahead of him in both New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The governor’s criticism of Covid vaccines has not only produced few political dividends in the primaries, but scientific experts characterize it as a dangerous public health policy.

Dr. Paul A. Offit directs the vaccine education center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and is on the FDA panel of outside vaccine experts that authorized the vaccines. He said tens of millions of Americans under 65 have underlying medical conditions that increase their risk of serious illness or death from Covid.

“Do you think only those over 65 are at risk?” she asked, referring to DeSantis’ refusal to recommend vaccines for younger age groups. “Unfortunately we have gone from scientific illiteracy to scientific denialism. Science doesn’t matter.”

Dr. Scott Rivkees, Florida’s state surgeon general for more than two years under DeSantis, said the state was now fairly isolated in its approach to Covid vaccines.

“I don’t know of any other states that have said people under 65 shouldn’t get the Covid vaccine,” said Dr. Rivkees, who left the administration in September 2021 and is now a professor at the University’s School of Public Health. of Brown.

DeSantis’ team dismisses such criticism as more complaints about a “tyrannical medical establishment” that led the nation astray during the pandemic.

“His actions have exposed the ‘experts’ of political actors the country now knows him to be, and that is why they continue to attack him with failed science and false narratives,” said Bryan Griffin, press secretary for the DeSantis campaign. in a statement. He said DeSantis had “prioritized the truth” as governor and that he “would do the same for our nation as president.”

Sarafina Chitika, spokesperson for the Democratic National Committee, said in a statement: “Ron DeSantis’ attempt today to resurrect his tired old anti-vaccine tantrum today is a reminder to voters that he played political games with Florida’s response to Covid at every turn. in a cheap effort to score political points with the extreme MAGA movement.”

Public health officials credit Mr. DeSantis for insisting that Florida schools open their doors to students in fall 2020. Many experts now agree that too many school districts offered only remote learning for too long. But he has been criticized for casting doubt on Covid injections.

DeSantis claimed Wednesday, as he has before, that federal authorities misled people into believing vaccines prevented infection. In fact, the shots were authorized based on evidence that they reduced the risks of serious illness and death, not infection.

The governor also stated that Dr. Ladapo had adequately identified the risks of the vaccines for young men. But the heads of the FDA and CDC publicly warned Dr. Ladapo that his statements were misleading, saying such misinformation “puts people at risk of death or serious illness.”

Mr. DeSantis also played a role state grand jury investigation almost a year ago he instigated what he claimed was possible criminal conduct by Covid vaccine makers. Critics called it a political stunt and so far it has failed.

But at the town hall, DeSantis suggested the issue would continue to come up during the election campaign, saying, “There may be a report or something very soon.”

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