Covid-19 deaths are inevitable in Florida, Democrats are warning, after rightwing Republican governor Ron DeSantis joined the state’s controversial surgeon general in urging residents to ignore public health advice and avoid new vaccines targeting a resurgence of the virus.
The extraordinary advice came at a feisty press conference in Jacksonville this week that was also marred by an unseemly shouting match between DeSantis, a candidate for his party’s presidential nomination, and a Black Air Force veteran.
Lashing out at what he called the “medical authoritarianism” of mask mandates and other anti-Covid measures, DeSantis accused federal health agencies of being “basically an arm of Big Pharma” as they mulled authorizing the vaccines as early as next week.
“Pharma will make more money if this thing is approved and they start pushing it on everybody,” said DeSantis, touting Florida’s “freedom” from vaccine mandates.
DeSantis is lagging badly in the race for his party’s 2024 nomination, but his campaign has forged a rightwing agenda that has seemed at times to outflank even that of dominant frontrunner Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, Dr Joseph Ladapo, the governor’s hand-picked surgeon general and a vaccine skeptic previously found to have manipulated data on vaccine safety, falsely claimed the new booster shots had not been tested on humans, and contained “red flags”.
Earlier this week, the nation’s two leading vaccine manufacturers, Moderna and Pfizer, released data showing a strong response in its updated vaccines against Covid strains fueling a rise in cases across the country.
In Florida this week, the overall pandemic death toll passed 90,000, and the weekly number of reported new cases was almost 24,000 for a second consecutive week, up from 7,320 in June.
The stance of DeSantis and Ladapo drew an angry response from Democratic leaders in Florida, who also accused the governor of hypocrisy for heralding personal medical freedoms after signing a six-week abortion ban, the nation’s most restrictive, and blocking access to medicines and procedures for trans people.
Lauren Book, the senate Democratic leader, tweeted: “Good! It’s settled. So they’ll stop attacking abortion healthcare, right?” in response to Ladapo’s comment during the press conference that “you have sovereignty over your body”.
Tina Polsky, a state senator who clashed with Ladapo during his confirmation hearings, and had him removed from her office during the pandemic when he refused to wear a mask despite her having a serious medical condition, said he was engaging in “political theater”.
“The overwhelming scientific evidence is that vaccines are helpful and safe. The surgeon general is lying to people and scaring people, and the effect is going to be that more people are going to die from Covid,” she said.
“This is our top scientist, and he’s lying about scientific data. It truly freaks me out that there are many people who are going to listen to that.”
She was also critical of DeSantis, who delivered his remarks on Thursday with a “Mandate Freedom” sign attached to the lectern.
“It’s not only abortion, but transgender care, telling you what you can and can’t get, how a nurse practitioner can’t prescribe you drugs but a doctor can, that you can’t have telehealth,” she said.
“That’s not freedom, it’s hypocrisy. They’re telling you everything, and yet are so unqualified to be telling you what’s right and wrong from a medical perspective.”
Ladapo, a Harvard-trained doctor, has a long and controversial history with Covid-19 vaccinations, having once claimed their benefits are no better than a healthy diet. In March, he was censured by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for harming public safety by “fueling vaccine hesitancy”.
He has also publicized unfounded links between Covid-19 vaccines and heart issues in young men, and removed data from a state study showing that the risk of myocarditis in young men was greater from Covid than from a vaccine.
The Florida health department did not return an email from the Guardian seeking comment.
Jeremy Redfern, DeSantis’s press secretary, said it was “absurd” to ask whether the governor was vaccinated against Covid-19, or would receive a booster shot if approved by the FDA and CDC.
“We are not going to discuss the governor’s private medical information. There is a reason he proposed and signed the strongest medical freedom legislation in the nation,” he said, referring to laws banning mask and vaccine mandates in Florida.
DeSantis trails Donald Trump by 34 points in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, according to a CNN poll this week.
In a campaign message on Thursday, the former US president attacked DeSantis’s “lying record” over Covid, and highlighted numerous occasions in which DeSantis publicly supported lockdowns, mask mandates and vaccinations and praised the handling of the pandemic by the Trump administration and federal agencies.
They include a July 2021 press conference in St Petersburg, in which DeSantis said: “These vaccines are saving lives. They reduce mortality”; his spring 2020 praise of Dr Anthony Fauci, the then-director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and now a target of conservatives, for “really doing a good job”; and accusations he directed precious early doses of vaccines to supporters instead of those most in need.