Two years after mounting an aggressive campaign to vaccinate Floridians against COVID and a year after praising their efficacy, Gov. Ron DeSantis now wants to prosecute those who pushed the vaccines.
“In Florida, it is against the law to mislead, to misrepresent, particularly when you’re talking about the efficacy of a drug,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a vaccine accountability roundtable with a panel of vaccine skeptics touted as experts by his administration.
“Today, I’m announcing a petition with the Supreme Court of Florida to impanel a statewide grand jury to investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines,” he said.
The move puts DeSantis squarely on the side of the anti-vaccination activists in the Republican voting base and, more generally, a broader GOP effort to demonize retiring White House medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci and other mainstream medical experts ahead of an expected presidential run in 2024.
“Our CDC, at this point, anything they put out, you just assume, at this point, that it’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” DeSantis said Tuesday, referring to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Yet just two years ago, as the vaccines were first becoming available, DeSantis put together a massive effort to inoculate Florida’s elderly against COVID. Dubbed “Seniors First,” the program included an aggressive public affairs campaign to promote the vaccines and dozens of pop-up clinics to administer them, at times using a lottery system among the eligible age groups.
Even in the summer of 2021, by which point the vaccine was available to anyone who wanted it, regardless of age, DeSantis was still praising the vaccines as effective and pointing to hospitalizations in the state as proof.
“I think the most important thing with the data: If you are vaccinated, fully vaccinated, the chance of you getting seriously ill or dying from COVID is effectively zero,” DeSantis said in a July appearance in St. Petersburg. “If you look at the people who are being admitted to hospitals, over 95 percent of them are either not fully vaccinated or not vaccinated at all. These vaccines are saving lives. They are reducing mortality.”
DeSantis, on that day, criticized the FDA for stopping the use of the Johnson and Johnson vaccine after several women developed blood clots, which slowed the vaccination rate. “I think that sent a message that maybe this is not something that they should be doing. I think that’s been unfortunate because I took it, I think it’s effective,” he said.
And before COVID, DeSantis appeared to have little trouble with vaccines. In 2019, with no controversy, he signed into law a requirement for doctors and nurses to log children’s vaccinations into a statewide database to help make sure kids who moved from one school district to another would be up-to-date on their shots.
DeSantis’ press office did not respond to HuffPost queries for this story.
“The 2024 Republican primary is what’s going on,” said Florida political consultant Rick Wilson, who left the Republican Party after it came under the control of coup-attempting former President Donald Trump, explaining DeSantis’ 180-degree shift in position.
DeSantis has recently accused Fauci and vaccine makers of misstating the vaccines’ effectiveness. Fauci, who has worked for a half-century as one of the nation’s top epidemiologists, refuted that Tuesday in a Sirius XM interview as he warned against vaccine disinformation.
“The data are crystal clear, crystal clear about the benefit of vaccination compared to the risk,” Fauci said. “We’ve lost 1 million people in this country to COVID, and the vast majority of them are those who were not vaccinated.”
Mac Stipanovich, a longtime Republican consultant in Florida and former chief of staff to GOP Gov. Bob Martinez, agreed that DeSantis’ motive is clear.
“DeSantis is a shameless shapeshifter whose unbridled ambition rather than consistent principles guides his actions. He relies, and justifiably so, on lack of long-term memory among voters, particularly the mutant MAGA strain,” Stipanovich said.
DeSantis’ shift to favor the anti-vaccine segment of the Republican voting base mirrors one by Trump himself, whose supporters DeSantis has been steadily poaching over the past year.
“This strikes me as a Republican presidential primary gambit, a play where his anti-vax bona fides, however bogus, contrast favorably with Trump’s vaccine support,” Stipanovich said.
Trump, in late 2020 accused Pfizer and Moderna of waiting until after the November election to announce the rollout of the vaccine so as not to help Trump’s re-election. After Democrat Joe Biden took office and began urging Americans to vaccinate, Trump angrily claimed credit for the “Operation Warp Speed” program to develop a vaccine quickly — but soon began avoiding the topic after his followers booed him when he praised vaccines.
DeSantis is expected to announce his run for the presidential nomination in late spring, following Florida’s legislative session. Trump has already announced his candidacy, even though he is under multiple criminal investigations regarding his coup attempt and removal of top-secret documents from the White House. A number of other Republicans — among them: former Vice President Mike Pence, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — are expected to enter the race, as well.