Gov. Ron DeSantis on Tuesday said he asked the Florida Supreme Court to impanel a statewide grand jury to “investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines.”
DeSantis said he expects the grand jury will bring “legal accountability for those who committed misconduct.” The governor has previously raised concerns about side effects from mRNA COVID vaccines and has railed against vaccination requirements by some employers.
He also said the state will create a Public Health Integrity Committee to “offer critical assessment” of recommendations and policies from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration and other organizations. That committee is expected to include several national health figures who have been outspoken against the use of lockdown policies and the need for COVID-19 vaccines.
The majority of public health experts say COVID-19 vaccines are safe and serious side effects are extremely rare.
DeSantis’ announcements came at the end of a 90-minute long roundtable with Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo that focused on alleged harms from the COVID-19 vaccine.
Included in the roundtable discussion, which streamed live from a West Palm Beach studio, was Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya, who is popular in conservative circles for critiquing COVID-19 vaccine mandates and for authoring the “Great Barrington Declaration,” which denounced lockdown policies. Also included were Tracy Høeg, a California epidemiologist who has done COVID-19 vaccine research with the Florida Department of Health, and Joseph Fraiman, an emergency room doctor in Louisiana who has said there’s no “clear benefit” for the COVID vaccines for children. DeSantis said all three, among others on the panel, will be part of the new committee.
“We know that there’s been a lot of faith destroyed in public health and I think that it’s important we have folks who people actually can rely on,” he said.
This is the third statewide grand jury that DeSantis has petitioned for in his time as governor. Such grand juries have only been impaneled about 20 times in more than 40 years. Earlier this year, DeSantis asked the state Supreme Court to impanel a grand jury to investigate conspiracies about migrants being brought to Florida. In 2019, he asked a grand jury to investigate school safety in light of the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland.
DeSantis said Tuesday he expects the latest grand jury to be impaneled in the Tampa Bay area.
DeSantis in early December had signaled he wants to take action against vaccine manufacturers. During a Republican Party of Florida event, DeSantis told a small crowd that his administration would hold the manufacturers accountable for the mRNA vaccine because “they said there was no side effects and we know that there have been a lot.”
At the event, DeSantis referenced a study conducted by Florida’s Department of Health in October, when Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo advised against mRNA vaccines for all men aged 18-39.
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The mRNA vaccines for COVID-19 were manufactured by Moderna and Pfizer.
The state’s recommendation said the risk of cardiac complications “likely” outweigh the benefit of vaccination, citing an increase in cardiac-related deaths among the men studied. But public health experts have criticized the study for not being peer-reviewed, for not extensively detailing its methodology and for not comparing the risk of myocarditis from the vaccine to the risk of myocarditis from COVID-19.
Though some men in that age group do see myocarditis as a side effect, experts have said that needs to be considered alongside the benefit of the vaccines.
Paul Goepfert, a professor of medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, was involved in the development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which is not an mRNA vaccine.
He said though the COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, he said “emphatically” that safety was not cut. Adverse outcomes are “exceedingly rare,” Goepfert said.
“(Vaccines are) still highly effective in keeping you out of the hospital, keeping you out of the intensive care unit and keeping you from dying,” he said.
Ladapo on Tuesday said the state is starting a surveillance study on myocarditis and COVID-19 deaths with Florida’s medical examiners and the University of Florida.
DeSantis has made his handling of COVID-19 the centerpiece of his tenure as governor — and it has been a large part of his rising star in conservative circles, as the governor is eyed as a possible presidential candidate.
DeSantis’ Tuesday announcement came as Florida lawmakers are meeting in special session in Tallahassee to try to address the state’s property insurance crisis.
Times/Herald Staff Writer Ana Ceballos contributed to this report.