TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis’ top media adviser has a mantra that the governor won’t give an interview unless it’s recorded because she doesn’t want her boss’ words twisted out of context.
But when the governor announced on Tuesday that he wants a grand jury to investigate what he suspects is misleading information from the pharmaceutical companies over the safety of the mRNA vaccines, particularly cardiac-related deaths tied to the vaccines in young men, a cascade of old recorded interviews started spilling out.
Network television focused on video from late 2020 and early 2021 showing DeSantis touting the vaccine as safe and effective to prevent serious illness from COVID-19 infections.
“The vaccines protect you. Get vaccinated and then live your life as if you’re protected,’’ DeSantis is recorded saying during a May 3, 2021, press conference.
“The messaging should be ‘get a vaccine because it’s good for you to do it. It works,’ ‘’ he said in another.
“The Late Show” host Stephen Colbert pieced together half a dozen of the DeSantis statements for his monologue on Wednesday. Colbert introduced the clips by saying: “Well, if DeSantis is going full conspiracy and attacking anyone who promoted this vaccine, I just hope he cracks down on whoever this guy is.”
“We know that there is no time to waste when it comes getting shots in arms,’’ Colbert showed DeSantis saying in one recorded video.
“They’re safe. They’re effective vaccines,’’ DeSantis said in another.
DeSantis hosts his own roundtable
None of those statements were raised Tuesday when DeSantis hosted a 90-minute roundtable in West Palm Beach of doctors, scientists and others who questioned the efficacy and safety of COVID vaccines.
“The ‘safe and effective’ terminology that’s been used ... it’s a lie,’’ said Dr. Joseph Fraiman, a Louisiana emergency-room physician and one of the governor’s guests. “It has to be.”
DeSantis announced the creation of the “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. And he asked the Florida Supreme Court to convene a grand jury to “investigate any and all wrongdoing in Florida with respect to COVID-19 vaccines.”
The pushback from the medical community was almost immediate, and the television networks milked it.
After the roundtable, DeSantis appeared on Fox News with host Laura Ingraham late Tuesday.
“What we’re looking for is to provide truth to provide accurate data and provide accurate analysis,’’ he said.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, responded to the criticism from DeSantis on CNN. He cited a just-released report from the Commonwealth Fund, a non-profit healthcare research organization, that concluded that the COVID-19 vaccines have saved more than 3.2 million lives, helped prevent 18.5 million hospitalizations and saved approximately $1 trillion in costs.
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“So what’s the problem with vaccines?’’ Fauci asked. “I mean, vaccines are lifesaving.”
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell invited University of Florida pediatric endocrinologist Michael Haller onto his show Wednesday to comment.
Haller said “it’s really unfortunate that the governor has chosen to politicize vaccination.”
“I come to work every day to try and save lives and keep people healthy. And these vaccines do just that,’’ he said. “I follow CDC guidelines because they’re evidence-based. They’re based in data that’s peer-reviewed, and the overwhelming majority of those data show that this vaccine does exactly what we said it does: prevents disease and prevent status keeps people out of our hospitals.”
Were DeSantis’ vaccine pronouncements right or wrong?
Asked to comment on the old video of the governor calling the vaccines both safe and effective, the governor’s spokesman Bryan Griffin said via email: “There is no inconsistency in both making vaccination accessible for those who chose it and opposing vaccine mandates, passports, or infallibility.”
He said the governor “is seeking accountability for falsehoods and omissions about the risks of the mRNA vaccine that came to light only after the vaccines were widely pushed by the public health establishment.”
Griffin suggested that public health officials promoted the vaccines “as completely safe and effective.”
The CDC reports that “COVID-19 vaccines have undergone the most intensive safety monitoring in U.S. history,” but since it first authorized the vaccines, the CDC reports that while adverse effects are rare, they have occurred. However, the agency adds: “The benefits of COVID-19 vaccination continue to outweigh any potential risks.”
The data show that cases of myocarditis and pericarditis, inflammation of the heart and heart lining, are rare after mRNA vaccines, although they are more likely to occur among young men. The CDC data also show that risk of heart inflammation is far greater from COVID-19 than from vaccination.
Griffin said the governor alleges that “discussion and examination of the risks associated with mRNA vaccines were stifled by the public health establishment” and not explored by the media.
Asked whether the governor considers it a mistake to have promoted vaccinations to all age groups as much as he did or if he would do anything differently now that he has doubts about the mRNA vaccines, Griffin did not answer.
Political analysis of grand jury announcement
Meanwhile, the call for a grand jury investigation elevated the political buzz around DeSantis, who is considered a likely challenger to former President Donald Trump for the 2024 Republican nomination for president.
The move was a “primary play” by DeSantis in an attempt to appeal to the GOP primary voter by distancing himself from Trump, said Sarah Longwell, Republican political strategist and publisher of the Bulwark, on the website’s podcast Thursday.
“The play for DeSantis is Trump was too accommodating of the public health community, made a bunch of bad decisions, shut things down, and Ron DeSantis knew better,’’ she said.
But, Longwell said, leaving the impression that “vaccines are bad” may be a “dangerous” strategy for DeSantis because those statements “are hard to walk back.”
DeSantis’ record on COVID-19 is a tale of two extremes.
After locking down the state’s businesses and schools on March 17, 2020, cracking down on spring break crowds, and setting up highway and airport checkpoints to monitor people coming into Florida, DeSantis was among the first governors to lift restrictions on businesses. In late April 2020, at the encouragement of Trump, DeSantis announced the state would reopen, even as cases continued to rise.
When local governments pushed back, he issued an executive order banning them from fining people for violating masking and social-distancing rules.
But once vaccines became available in December 2020, DeSantis joined with the president in promoting them. He created a “strike force” to vaccinate seniors at long-term care facilities and barnstormed the state announcing vaccination drives in orchestrated media events in Republican-rich enclaves, as his staff sent vaccines to specially selected retirement communities in some of the state’s wealthiest ZIP codes.
In late January 2021, DeSantis held the first of at least two appearances promoting the vaccine on Fox News. “Fox & Friends” rolled its cameras as a 100-year-old World War II veteran from Florida became the state’s one-millionth senior citizen to receive the coronavirus vaccine with DeSantis at his side. Weeks later, the show featured a 94-year-old vet getting what DeSantis called “the jab.”
He held a press conference to highlight Jackson Memorial’s vaccination site in Miami and another in Key Largo. He touted the 70 state-supported sites, Publix stores and houses of worship, and boasted that Florida was the “first state in the nation” to vaccinate staff and residents at long-term care facilities and emergency responders. He proudly announced the hiring of thousands of workers to push the vaccination effort.
But by the spring of 2021, the governor’s tone had changed.
It is not known what his campaign-financed internal polls and focus groups were telling him, but signals emerged that a portion of the Republican base was increasingly opposed to getting the shot. According to videos of a closed event in Dallas in December 2020, Trump was booed by some of the audience when he said he had received a COVID-19 booster.
The governor stopped promoting the vaccine and started elevating the narrative of vaccine skeptics.
In April, DeSantis sued the CDC for imposing vaccine mandates on the cruise industry. By June, he had called legislators into special session to impose penalties on employer-imposed vaccine mandates and pass legislation requiring school districts to allow parents to opt out of mask mandates for their children.
After prevailing in his lawsuit against the cruise industry in July 2021, DeSantis became more emboldened. In October 2021, he sued the Biden administration over its requirement that federal contractors show proof of vaccination of their employees.
This spring, DeSantis had Florida join 20 other states to successfully overturn a CDC rule requiring masks on airplanes and other public transportation. And this summer, Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo recommended against children getting vaccines based on an internal study he conducted that was widely criticized by the medical community because it included no peer-reviewed data.