DeSantis Digs In on Mask Resistance as Covid Ravages Florida
(Bloomberg) -- Covid patients are filling Florida’s intensive-care units, oxygen supplies are short and school officials are defiant. But Governor Ron DeSantis is gambling that for Republicans, resistance to public-health measures shows his commitment to the conservative cause.
Health-care systems are converting cafeterias and conference rooms into patient areas, according to Florida Hospital Association President Mary Mayhew. The state, with 6% of the U.S. population, accounted for about 20% of its coronavirus cases in the past week.
During that same week, DeSantis found time to present himself to audiences elsewhere. The 42-year-old Republican, who’s up for re-election next year, is also considered a top contender for the presidency in 2024. On Monday, he raised campaign funds in Michigan, the Detroit News reported. On Wednesday, he appeared on Fox News, where he downplayed pressure on hospitals as “misinformation” and blamed President Joe Biden’s border policy for the introduction of new variants.
DeSantis has become the national face of GOP opposition to the fight against the pandemic, with his fundraising team even peddling T-shirts and beer koozies with his campaign logo and a slogan aimed at the nation’s top virus-fighter, Anthony Fauci: “Don’t Fauci My Florida.” Last week, he threatened to withhold funding from school districts that mandate masks when classes restart this month. The rule sent officials rushing for workarounds, with some deciding they would take their chances with the money to protect children.
About 40% of Florida’s adult intensive-care beds were filled by Covid-19 patients this week, compared with about 7% at the end of June.
The governor is betting that U.S. politics has become more about what is said than what is actually done. DeSantis is seizing the moment to cater to a “very loud and active minority,” said Stephen Neely, a professor of public affairs at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
“A lot of this is red meat for that base,” said Neely. “It’s a gamble on his part. He’s betting this is just a seasonal uptick, and it will fade quickly.”
While the posture may play well nationally, Floridians may be less enchanted. DeSantis’s approval was 44%, with 49% disapproving and the rest unsure, in an Aug. 2-3 survey from St. Pete Polls. In the same poll, 62% of respondents said masks should be required for schoolchildren. DeSantis trailed in a hypothetical matchup against Democrat Charlie Crist, though the result was within the margin of error.
DeSantis, however, is finding sparring partners at a higher political level.
On Fox late Wednesday, DeSantis criticized Biden, who had asked him to “get out of the way” of the administration’s public-health campaign. DeSantis shifted the conversation to migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, about 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the Sunshine State and a perennial top Republican issue. He claimed migrants -- enabled by Biden -- are bringing “every variant on this planet.”
A year ago, DeSantis didn’t set tough safety rules, but acknowledged that Florida’s size and diversity called for different approaches in different counties. When Miami-Dade saw a summer surge in 2020, he appeared at a roundtable in a mask and urged residents to follow local rules.
Now, as he sets a permissive policy for the entire state, DeSantis says that risks have changed with vaccines and improved care and deaths have dropped significantly. The governor says masks for students are a matter of personal choice, but the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said they are most effective when everyone wears them.
Florida’s average daily hospital admissions of children 17 and younger with confirmed Covid reached about 1.1 per 100,000 this week, nearly double the rate during the January peak, according to federal data. That’s about an eighth of the general population’s rate.
DeSantis spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said fewer Florida children have died of Covid-19 than those that died of flu and pneumonia in 2019, the last typical flu season. Children aren’t major transmitters of the disease, she said. “The data has yet to substantiate how masks significantly reduce an already very low risk of Covid-19 in children,” she said by email.
DeSantis protects the rights of residents by staving off aggressive officials, she said, and just Wednesday held a roundtable with hospital chief executives.
“Governor DeSantis is protecting all Floridians’ individual rights from all levels of government overreach,” she said.
DeSantis has claimed that controlling Covid-19 doesn’t have to come at the expense of the economy or “freedom.” But the state may not have been the perfect laboratory for a mask-free society. Floridians have generally tended to mask up and restrict their movements more than the national average, according to data published by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.
The latest surge is unfolding at alarming speeds anyway, ravaging cities including Jacksonville and Orlando, while the populous Miami metropolitan area is faring somewhat better.
“The rapid increase in Covid hospitalizations combined with significantly higher volumes of non-Covid, very ill patients is creating significant strain on hospital capacity,” said Mayhew, the Hospital Association leader -- and DeSantis’s former secretary of the Agency for Health Care Administration.
Read More: Florida’s Oxygen Woes Cue Coming Wave of Covid Supply Shortages
Florida hospitals are struggling to get oxygen tanks, partly because DeSantis hasn’t declared an emergency that would loosen rules for truckers’ hours. There are too few to get the tanks where they need to go, according to Brigadier General David Sanford, director of the White House supply chain task force.
“Hospitals are fighting with a hand tied behind their back,” Soumi Saha, vice president of advocacy for hospital supply purchasing group Premier Inc., said this week.
In Jacksonville, the surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals, said Elizabeth DeVos, an emergency doctor with University of Florida Health Jacksonville. Covid patients lie in gurneys in hallways and waiting areas, because the intensive-care unit is full, she said.
“Our people are tired,” DeVos said. “We’ve been working, giving 1,000% and continue to look for new opportunities to assure patients get the care they need.”
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