Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
- DeSantis has asked for a grand jury to kick off a probe into life-saving COVID-19 shots.
- He used to promote the vaccines, but has become more skeptical over time.
- The actions show a big contrast with Trump on pandemic policy.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis intensified his attacks on the COVID-19 vaccines on Tuesday, in a move that positions the Republican governor to contrast his pandemic record with that of former President Donald Trump.
Speaking from a studio in West Palm Beach, DeSantis held a 90-minute roundtable with COVID vaccine skeptics and asked the Florida Supreme Court to set up a statewide grand jury to investigate “crimes and wrongdoing” related to the COVID-19 shots, weaponizing life-saving vaccines ahead of a potential fight with not just Trump but President Joe Biden.
Since 2020, DeSantis has made his pandemic policies a key political rallying cry. He bucked the advice of federal health officials to reopen schools and Florida businesses before most other states and banned both mask and vaccine mandates.
Should DeSantis decide to enter the 2024 presidential contest, the pandemic is one area where the governor could accentuate the differences between himself and Trump, whose administration launched the COVID-19 vaccines in record time.
While the governor hasn’t directly criticized Trump or said whether he intends to pursue the presidency, DeSantis made his latest announcement geographically close to Mar-a-Lago, the oceanfront private club and estate where Trump lives in Palm Beach.
DeSantis often holds major announcements at locations that carry subliminal messages. For instance, he has taken to publicly calling President Joe Biden “Brandon” in a nod to the anti-Biden chant “Let’s Go, Brandon,” and last year signed a bill in Brandon, Florida, when he banned workplace vaccine mandates.
In contrast, Trump has been more forthright in attacking DeSantis. Soon after the election, Trump bashed DeSantis as disloyal to him because he’d endorsed the governor four years ago, helping him secure the GOP nomination.
He has called DeSantis “DeSanctiminious” and said that governors who don’t announce their vaccine status are “gutless.” Many news outlets interpreted the comment as a dig against DeSantis, who hasn’t shared whether he received a COVID-19 booster shot.
It’s not clear whether Trump will lean into his success on the COVID-19 vaccine through his Operation Warp Speed program. Dr. Paul Offit, a leading infectious disease expert at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said Trump should “take bows” over the vaccines, calling it “the greatest scientific and medical advance in my lifetime.”
Republicans shouldn’t “feel the need to distance themselves from it,” he said, adding that he didn’t understand why Trump didn’t brag about it more.
“What I’ve come up with is that he’s a modest man who doesn’t like to put his name on things,” Offit joked of Trump, whose eponymous buildings decorate US city skylines.
President Donald Trump reaches into his suit during a news conference where he prematurely declared victory in the election on November 4, 2020.
DeSantis leads Trump in a new poll
Several signs show Operation Warp Speed could become a liability to Trump. For instance, Republicans have a lower uptake of the vaccine than Democrats, and Trump supporters have booed when he has encouraged them to get the vaccine.
Meanwhile, DeSantis is seen as one of Trump’s most formidable opponents in a hypothetical presidential matchup. In a USA Today-Suffolk University poll released Tuesday, DeSantis led Trump by 23 points among Republicans.
But if the governor does run for president he’ll need to contrast himself with Trump. News outlets, Democrats — and even many Republicans — frequently portray DeSantis as similar to Trump.
Several GOP operatives see Trump’s pandemic policies as a possible area from which to attack Trump on the right, Insider first reported in September.
“Pushing back and ensuring accountability on anything COVID-related is a win for DeSantis,” GOP strategist John Thomas, who started a pro-DeSantis Super PAC, told Insider. “This issue also serves as a reminder to the American people that he made the right calls during COVID to fight back against lockdowns and vaccine mandates.”
The Biden administration often bashes Trump on his pandemic policy. But while president, Trump initially shut down the US and his administration released guidance in support of wearing masks.
Steven Cheung, Trump’s campaign spokesperson, told Insider that Trump’s administration had “worked tirelessly” to secure medical equipment and that he allowed each state to determine what was best for its residents. He didn’t say anything about DeSantis in his response, instead accusing Biden of failing “to continue the Trump administration’s successes he inherited,” noting that more people died from COVID-19 under Biden than under Trump.
“Operation Warp Speed was a once-in-a-lifetime initiative that gave people the option of utilizing therapeutics if they wished to do so,” he said.
Other Trump supporters criticized DeSantis directly. Alex Bruesewitz, CEO of political consulting firm X Strategies, panned DeSantis’ actions as “revisionist history.”
“Facts be damned, this is exactly what to expect from career politicians looking to climb the political ladder,” he told Insider. “Ron DeSantis was Florida’s biggest vaccine advocate when it was ‘good’ PR, and now, as he tries to position himself for his next campaign, he is reinventing reality and hoping no one will notice. Typical unabashed political opportunism, but MAGA voters won’t be manipulated so easily.”
Then-President Donald Trump with then-Florida governor candidate Ron DeSantis at a July 2018 “Make America Great Again” rally in Tampa, Florida.
DeSantis launched a new public health group
DeSantis did do events across Florida to encourage COVID vaccine uptake and prioritized older adults, though he later had vaccine skeptics appear at several events and offered health advice that clashed with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For instance, the FDA and CDC have cleared the bivalent booster for those as young as 6 months of age depending on what COVID-19 vaccine a person has previously had. In contrast, Florida’s health agency has recommended against healthy children getting the shots at all. Countries including Denmark and Sweden have similar guidance.
DeSantis plans to go further during his second term after being sworn in on January 3. The governor said Tuesday that he plans to push the state legislature to pass a law to block hospitals from taking medical licenses from doctors who speak out on COVID-19 mitigation practices.
He is tasking Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo with starting a surveillance program with the University of Florida to investigate sudden deaths in people that received the COVID shot, and having Ladapo lead a “Public Health Integrity Committee.” The committee will issue guidance about COVID vaccines and other healthcare matters.
Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor of medicine at Stanford University, is one of the committee members. Bhattacharya, who was attending the roundtable, has been in the news in the last few days after conservative journalist Bari Weiss revealed that Twitter diminished the visibility of his tweets because he opposed COVID lockdowns.
DeSantis gave some indications about the grand jury investigation on Tuesday. He called out CDC guidance that initially and incorrectly said people could not become infected with the coronavirus if they were vaccinated, and accused the government of downplaying vaccine side effects such as myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart muscle, in teens and young men.
“I think people want the truth and I think people want accountability,” DeSantis said. “You need a thorough investigation about what happened.”
He accused the pharmaceutical industry of potentially misleading on the vaccine, and said a grand jury would have “legal processes that will be able to get more information and to bring legal accountability with those who committed misconduct.”
The DeSantis roundtable focused on Pfizer and Moderna’s mRNA vaccines, and not the Johnson & Johnson vaccine which has shown in rare cases to be linked to an increase in blood clots. The scientists present at the roundtable repeatedly stressed that other, non-COVID vaccines should be considered safe.
Moderna did not respond to Insider’s questions about DeSantis’ latest announcement. Sharon Castillo, a spokeswoman for Pfizer, defended the COVID-19 vaccines’ efficacy in an email to Insider, saying they’d saved “hundreds of thousands of lives” and “enabled people worldwide to go about their lives more freely.”
The vaccines prevented more than 18 million hospitalizations and 3 million additional deaths, according to an estimate from the Commonwealth Fund.
Numerous regulatory agencies had authorized the vaccine after “robust and independent evaluation of the scientific data on quality, safety, and efficacy,” Castillo said, adding that real-world studies continue to show that the vaccines work to prevent severe illness.
Offit, who has advised the CDC on vaccines, told Insider that he didn’t think DeSantis understood the regulatory process, adding that companies submit all their data to the Food and Drug Administration when they apply for approval. The CDC then goes on to make recommendations for who should get the shot, and outcomes from vaccines get tracked in several places — which is how scientists now know about the myocarditis and blood clotting side effects in some people.
“I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Offit said. “His whole thing is that the data are being hidden, that you need this supervisory system to have integrity. The system has integrity.”
Offit does, however, differ from the CDC in saying that, at this time, he does not see how the CDC data support encouraging young, healthy people to get another COVID-19 booster shot. Instead, boosters should go toward people at the highest risk of hospitalization, he said.
DeSantis was asking a “fair question” about the booster for children, Offit said, but “when he makes false claims about safety he loses credibility.”