U.S. POLITICS

Ron DeSantis Versus the “Party of Science.”

Florida’s governor is vaccinating seniors first because they’re more likely to die of COVID-19—not because they’re more likely to vote for him.

Progressives and their mainstream media allies have long accused conservatives of waging a “war on science.” A year into the COVID-19 pandemic, “anti-science” is now used as an epithet for anyone who questions the endless restrictions, interventions, and doomsday predictions that underpin Democratic governors’ draconian COVID-19 responses. As more than half a million Americans have died of the virus, “anti-science” is becoming progressive shorthand for “murderer.” That’s why it’s the left’s favorite criticism for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

The governor gained a new nickname, which his critics plastered on billboards: “DeathSantis.”

In May 2020, when DeSantis began reopening his state, ten Democrats from Florida’s congressional delegation wrote him a scathing open letter warning that “rushed reopening” might increase “human loss.” They accused DeSantis of resisting “science-based and data-driven mitigation strategies.” The governor gained a new nickname, which his critics plastered on billboards: “DeathSantis.”

Fast-forward ten months. Scientific breakthroughs—not mask mandates or school closures, but vaccines developed through Operation Warp Speed—are bringing the pandemic under control. To say Florida has done better than expected is an understatement. With the third-largest (and second-oldest) population in the country, Florida ranks #27 in COVID-19 deaths per capita. The three states with the highest rate of COVID-19 deaths are New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island. All three had far more restrictive and lengthier lockdowns than Florida. And all three are run by Democrats. As a recent Wall Street Journal editorial put it, the data bring “vindication for Ron DeSantis.” Even a New York Times headline admitted, “I’d much rather be in Florida.”

How did this happen? While Democrats focused on processes, DeSantis focused on outcomes. Throughout the pandemic, progressives have embraced public health theater: Heavy-handed, highly visible, costly interventions that lack evidence of effectiveness but appease the media-fueled anxieties of their voter base. Cloth face coverings, plexiglass barriers, and lockdowns all fall into this category.

By contrast, DeSantis eschewed performative virtue-signaling in favor of evidence-based measures. While the “party of science” called him a murderer, DeSantis followed the science—and it saved lives.

COVID-19 swab test.

COVID-19 swab test.

REBEKAH JONES: FROM “DESANTIS’ WORST NIGHTMARE” TO DISCREDITED CONSPIRACY THEORIST

Instead of reporting the inconvenient truth about Florida, DeSantis’ media critics, from Miami Herald to MSNBC, have obscured the facts with an outlandish conspiracy theory: Countless employees from multiple agencies colluded with the governor to conceal the true number of COVID-19 deaths in the state. The single source? Rebekah Jones, who was fired from a low-level job at Florida’s Department of Health (DOH) in May 2020.

[T]he media ignored Jones’ unscientific data reporting in favor of her salacious explanation for the discrepancies…

Jones claimed, without evidence, that the DeSantis administration told her to manipulate COVID-19 data for Florida’s reopening—and then fired her to cover the tracks. DOH personnel records indicate, however, that Jones was actually terminated for courting publicity, posting the agency’s charts on her personal blog, and even sabotaging the state’s COVID-19 dashboard. That didn’t stop the mainstream media from lionizing her, enabling her to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to launch her own COVID-19 website. She promised to publish “the REAL numbers” that DeSantis was allegedly suppressing. But in fact, Jones’ site used the exact same data as Florida’s official dashboard

Jones’ dashboard did show higher figures than the state’s COVID-19 dashboard—but not because DeSantis was hiding anything. Jones inflated Florida’s case numbers by adding antibody positives to PCR/antigen positives; she inflated the state’s death count by lumping together non-resident and resident deaths. Both of these practices violated CDC reporting guidelines. Yet the media ignored Jones’ unscientific data reporting in favor of her salacious explanation for the discrepancies: The governor himself was overseeing a vast COVID-19 cover-up. The Daily Beast even anointed Jones “DeSantis’ Worst Nightmare.”

But lately, Jones’ credibility (even by abysmal mainstream media standards) is wearing thin. Last month, when Jones tweeted that Florida had surpassed New York in COVID-19 deaths, the CDC refuted her. Turns out she hadn’t included data for a little town called New York City. Someone’s fudging the numbers—but it’s not DeSantis.

Nevertheless, Jones’ COVID-19 disinformation did not deter Emily Bloch from writing a breathless puff piece last week about the left’s anti-DeSantis heroine for Cosmopolitan, the women’s magazine renowned for such scientific insights as “obesity is healthy.” Bloch—the president of the Florida Society of Professional Journalists—neglected to fact-check Jones’ allegations about Florida’s COVID-19 data, but did publish Jones’ comparison of DeSantis’ Latina communications director to a “Chihuahua.” Apparently, this is what passes for hard-hitting political journalism in the party of science, feminism, and anti-racism.

With Jones’ credibility in decline, and DeSantis’ star on the rise, Democrats and their media mouthpieces are moving on to another Florida COVID-19 conspiracy theory: DeSantis is intentionally prioritizing vaccinations for rich, white conservatives. Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, Florida’s only statewide elected Democrat and likely contender in next year’s gubernatorial race, is an enthusiastic proponent of this narrative. On March 1st, Fried sent a letter to Congress accusing DeSantis of selling vaccine access to wealthy GOP donors. (Fried has also been a leading advocate of Jones’ COVID-19 fantasies; she referred to the data analyst as “Dr. Rebekah Jones” in an open letter to DeSantis.)

Like Jones’ tale, these vaccine conspiracy theories are tailor-made for uncritical mainstream media promotion. They weave an irresistible narrative of GOP corruption, inequality, and racism. And, as with Jones’ story, the Narrative overpowers the facts.

COVID-19 mobile testing facility.

COVID-19 mobile testing facility.

WHILE DESANTIS FOLLOWS THE SCIENCE, THE MEDIA FOLLOWS THE NARRATIVE

A year into the pandemic, there is a scientific consensus: Seniors are at higher risk for COVID-19 complications and death. Compared to 18-29-year-olds, 65-74-year-olds are 73 times more likely to die if they contract COVID-19. Not 73%, 73 times. The risks increase exponentially for older cohorts. A data-driven, science-based vaccine rollout would therefore prioritize seniors. Nevertheless, in December, the CDC recommended prioritizing younger “essential workers” along with adults 75 and up.

Democrats and the progressive media accused the governor of racism.

Florida vaccinated front-line healthcare workers in the first wave, but DeSantis then overrode the CDC to expand eligibility to all Floridians age 65 and over. “If you’re a 22-year-old working… at a supermarket, you would have preference over a 74-year-old grandmother,” he said in response to the CDC guidelines at a December press conference. “I don’t think that is the direction we want to go.”

In response, Democrats and the progressive media accused the governor of racism. “DeSantis is treating communities of color just as an afterthought,” Democratic state lawmaker Omari Hardy told NBC News. Fried claimed on MSNBC that Desantis allowed “his white, wealthy donors” to cut the line, while “all of our minorities… are still waiting for the vaccines.”

It’s true that younger essential workers are more likely to be people of color, and most Florida seniors are white. This does not, however, negate the overwhelming evidence that older adults—of any race—face exponentially greater risks of hospitalization and death from COVID-19.

While DeSantis continued to follow the science, the CDC soon revised its guidance in line with Florida’s approach. But the media doubled down. Last month, NBC lamented that DeSantis was courting Florida’s Jewish and Cuban “voting blocs” by vaccinating homebound Holocaust survivors and Bay of Pigs veterans. Of course, almost everyone in those categories is 85 or older, and COVID-19 is 527 times more deadly for that age group than for young adults. That didn’t stop progressive outlet The Forward from quoting a professor who called DeSantis’ vaccination of Holocaust survivors a “venal political maneuver.”

Another persistent COVID-19 vaccine and DeSantis conspiracy theory involves the Florida supermarket chain Publix. Salon, Orlando Sentinel, and other media outlets have suggested Publix won the right to distribute COVID-19 vaccines in exchange for a $100,000 donation to a pro-DeSantis PAC. Rep. Hardy went a step further, accusing the governor of corruption and calling the Publix partnership “more evidence that DeSantis doesn’t care about Black people.”

DeSantis’ opponents and their media cheerleaders have aired increasingly bizarre speculations.

The facts, of course, say otherwise. DeSantis’ PAC raised $3.22 million in February alone; it’s hard to imagine a $100,000 donation could buy Publix undue influence. There’s a simpler explanation: The chain already had the infrastructure to distribute COVID-19 vaccines. Its pharmacists have experience administering shots, because they inoculate countless Floridians for the flu every season. The chain has hundreds of locations throughout the state; it’s easier for most Floridians to get to their local Publix than their county’s health department. According to DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice, the chain was chosen over competitors because Publix was “the first to answer the call” to mobilize vaccination sites. As a conservative, DeSantis does not expand government where the private sector can achieve better results.

To be sure, COVID-19 outcomes and vaccine access in minority communities are legitimate concerns. The Atlantic’s COVID-19 Tracking Project—which, notably, gave Florida an “A” grade for data reporting—reports that, nationwide, African-Americans are 1.4 times more likely than whites to die of COVID-19. Vaccine hesitancy among African-Americans stems in part from a history of unethical and racist experiments, like the 1932 Tuskegee Study, for which Black men were recruited without informed consent for an experiment that withheld treatment for syphilis. And Rep. Hardy’s criticism of the Publix partnership was based on the fact that the supermarket chain lacks a presence in some communities of color. Certainly, these issues deserve attention. But the claim that DeSantis has done nothing to address racial disparities is simply false.

Florida Deputy Secretary of Health Shamarial Roberson, a Black epidemiologist, has been a leader of the vaccine rollout since the start. As the first COVID-19 vaccines hit the market, DeSantis announced an initiative to partner with African American faith leaders, who have been instrumental in educating their congregations about the importance of inoculation. The DeSantis administration has opened vaccination sites at predominantly Black churches around the state to reach more seniors in underserved communities. And state workers are canvassing minority neighborhoods, knocking on thousands of doors to help eligible residents get their shots.

But instead of reporting on these important efforts to remedy racial disparities in vaccination, DeSantis’ opponents and their media cheerleaders have aired increasingly bizarre speculations. A resident of Broward County, where 45.6% of seniors have been fully vaccinated, filed a federal complaint accusing DeSantis of “discrimination” for opening a vaccine site in Manatee County — where just 27% of seniors have received both their shots. And recently, Fried told The Daily Beast’s Molly Jong-Fast about her “hunch” that DeSantis caught COVID-19 last fall and hid it from the public. When conspiracy theories fuel the Narrative, who needs facts?

COVID-19 vaccination queue.

COVID-19 vaccination queue.

FLORIDA’S COVID-19 NUMBERS SPELL VINDICATION FOR DESANTIS—BUT DEMOCRATS STILL WANT A FEDERAL INVESTIGATION

Three months into Florida’s vaccine rollout, the data is again proving DeSantis right. Apocalyptic predictions of massive COVID-19 spikes and death tolls after the Super Bowl in Tampa have not materialized; just 57 cases were linked to the event. Daily COVID-19 deaths are dwindling. By early March, the majority of Floridians 65 and older had received at least one shot, and Florida had become a national leader in vaccinating seniors. About 28% of Florida’s total population had been inoculated by that point, in line with the national average. Florida is now expanding eligibility to younger adults while prioritizing those with conditions like HIV/AIDS.

[T]he Democrats calling for these investigations, on the basis of left-wing conspiracy theories, are ignoring another inconvenient fact. DeSantis himself isn’t managing vaccination logistics…

While DeSantis’ opponents call his pandemic policies racist, the numbers tell a different story. Florida’s approach has resulted in better outcomes for African-Americans relative to Democrat-run states like Michigan, New Jersey, and New York. COVID-19 deaths among Black Floridians have been roughly proportionate to the state’s demographics; African-Americans make up 15% of Florida’s population and 16% of COVID-19 deaths.

By contrast, a staggering 23% of those who died of COVID-19 in New York were African-Americans, who comprise just 14% of the state’s population. Perhaps this is why New York Governor Andrew Cuomo needs a “vaccine equity task force,” while DeSantis does not.

But is there any truth to the pervasive allegation that DeSantis is funneling most of Florida’s vaccines to wealthy, conservative, predominantly white enclaves? Not according to the data. University of Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi tracks the state’s vaccine rollout. Of the Florida counties with the largest senior populations, Salemi’s dashboard shows the highest percentages vaccinated in Broward, Palm Beach, and Dade—all reliably blue (and racially diverse). Even NBC had to admit that “the shots are well distributed across ideological lines.”

This hasn’t stopped Democratic Rep. Charlie Crist, another potential gubernatorial challenger, from urging the DOJ to investigate DeSantis for “selecting vaccination sites to benefit political allies and donors.” Not to be outdone, Nikki Fried is calling for an FBI investigation.

With Democrats in control of the federal government, and DeSantis seen as a top 2024 presidential contender, the DOJ and FBI might very well investigate Florida’s vaccine rollout. But the Democrats calling for these investigations, on the basis of left-wing conspiracy theories, are ignoring another inconvenient fact. DeSantis himself isn’t managing vaccination logistics—the Florida Division of Emergency Management is. The director is Jared Moskowitz, a progressive Democrat and outspoken supporter of President Joe Biden. It’s puzzling that Florida Democrats seem so eager to smear one of their own, especially as Moskowitz’s agency is doing a good job with the vaccine rollout. (Incidentally, Moskowitz has urged his fellow Democrats not to fall for COVID-19 conspiracy theories about Florida, such as those promoted by Jones.)

Even as the numbers prove them wrong, the media’s growing number of anti-DeSantis activists are still scrambling to find reasons to criticize DeSantis’ COVID-19 response. Miami Herald “investigative reporter” Julie Brown recently tweeted a photo from a vaccination site, claiming that people had been “waiting in this Covid vaccine car line in Miami since 4:30 am”—and implying that DeSantis was somehow responsible. However, Brown didn’t mention that the crowded Miami site was administered by FEMA, which had opened up vaccines to Floridians who weren’t yet eligible under the state’s guidelines.

No matter what narrative the media spins, facts are stubborn things. It’s a fact that seniors are at the highest risk for COVID-19 complications. It’s also a fact that Floridians 65 and older tend to be more white and conservative than younger demographics. Scientists, however, understand that correlation does not imply causation. DeSantis is vaccinating seniors first because they’re more likely to die of COVID-19—not because they’re more likely to vote for him.

Instead of caving to media and political pressure, DeSantis has followed the science. Now, other Republican governors are following his lead. If Democrats are pushing for a federal investigation of DeSantis for Florida’s successful, science-based COVID-19 response, who represents the “party of science” now?

Written By:

Christina Pushaw is an international political consultant and writer based in Washington, DC. She has a Master’s degree in international relations and economics from Johns Hopkins University and a Bachelor's degree in History from the University of Southern California.