TALLAHASSEE — After a 14-month investigation, a statewide grand jury impaneled by Gov. Ron DeSantis published a report blasting mask and lockdown mandates adopted during the pandemic.
The panel, charged with investigating “criminal or wrongful activity in Florida relating to the development, promotion and distribution” of COVID-19 vaccines, made it clear that its work is far from finished and that it’s gathering “much more testimony and evidence.”
The grand jury process has been blasted by Democrats as a political stunt while its report — released last week — has been criticized by some scientists for being one-sided. On Friday, DeSantis held a roundtable lauding the grand jury’s report.
He was joined by Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo and other scientists popular in conservative circles for critiquing vaccine mandates and other COVID-19 measures, including Stanford professor Jay Bhattacharya and podcaster Bret Weinstein.
“If there’s not an accounting of this, then this is just going to happen again in the future at some point, and that would be really bad for this country,” DeSantis said.
Commissions were created and reports written after 9/11 and the Iraq War, DeSantis said, but there’s been no such commission for COVID-19 despite it also being a world-shaking event. He said Florida’s grand jury is serving that function for the country.
The findings in the report are not supported by the wider evidence of scientific studies, said Matt Hitchings, a University of Florida epidemiologist and professor of biostatistics. He described the report as “under reasoned” and reliant on a biased subset of research.
The report says little about the safety of vaccines but states that communities that mandated lockdowns had higher rates of fatalities during the pandemic. It says there is no “sound evidence” on the effectiveness of masks, which counters Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance.
It also states that the 1.17 million COVID-19 deaths compiled by the CDC from state data is likely inflated with people who died not “from” but “with” the virus. It is “highly likely” that hospitals inflated the number of COVID-19 patients they treated to take advantage of Medicaid and Medicare subsidies, the report states.
The report, while occasionally mentioning studies, does not list them by name or include footnotes so the study can be cross-referenced. It states that the grand jury, which by law must be between 15 and 21 people, elicited testimony from experts and laypeople but does not name them. The report does acknowledge that none on the grand jury are “physicians” and that while some are “involved in the medical field,” most work in other professions.
Representatives from the CDC, the Food & Drug Administration and the U.S. Army declined to testify before the grand jury, according to the report. Under federal law, they cannot be compelled to testify, the report states.
The report’s finding of higher mortality rates in communities that enforced lockdowns “is so misleading, to the point of being a flat-out lie,” Hitchings said.
It’s easy to find studies that conclude that periods of lockdown coincided with a drop in the number of COVID-19 and other deaths.
“The authors must have left these studies out on purpose,” he said.
Lockdowns and school closures were among extreme measures adopted in the first year of the pandemic before a vaccine was available, Hitchings said. They were intended to prevent hospitals from being inundated with patients. There is still a need for research on what public health measures were most effective, he said.
DeSantis requested that the Florida Supreme Court impanel the statewide grand jury at the end of 2022. By that point, vaccines had been available in the state for nearly two years. DeSantis encouraged vaccines initially.
Statewide grand juries are rare. Florida has empaneled only 22 statewide grand juries in over 40 years. The COVID-19 grand jury is DeSantis’ third. He previously sought a grand jury to investigate school safety after the Parkland shooting, and another to investigate whether governments and international crime organizations are bringing migrants into Florida illegally.
The COVID-19 grand jury said in its first report that its mission is different from those of other grand juries that came before it.
“The issue we have been asked to examine is different from prior statewide grand juries in that it obviously affects people all over the United States—and perhaps the world—in much the same way as it affects citizens of the State of Florida,” the report authors state.
Rep. Fentrice Driskell, the Democratic House leader, said during a news conference Monday that Floridians are done with the governor’s “COVID distraction” and instead want to focus on the affordability crisis.
“Ron DeSantis championed the vaccine, and Ron DeSantis shut down this state, and people seem to forget that,” Driskell said.
Future reports from this grand jury are expected to look at the effectiveness and safety of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna mRNA vaccines initially developed as part of former President Donald Trump’s Operation Warp Speed.
It may also look at the role of the media during the pandemic. A Florida Department of Law Enforcement special agent who said he was working with the grand jury recently contacted a Tampa Bay Times reporter seeking information about how journalists do their jobs, suggesting part of the focus will be on how the media reported on the pandemic.
A spokesperson for DeSantis did not respond to multiple requests for comment when asked whether the governor knew of or approved of the grand jury looking into the role of journalists.