Late in 2021, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis dodged a question about whether he got a booster shot to protect against covid-19.
“So, I’ve done whatever I did … the normal shot, and that at the end of the day is people’s individual decisions about what they want to do,” DeSantis said on the same day former president Donald Trump got booed for saying he received a booster.
Now a candidate for president who is regularly critical of the vaccines, DeSantis this week took a sharper stance in response to a new booster shot recommended by federal health officials.
“I will not stand by and let the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective,” said the governor in a written statement released after his surgeon general urged people under 65 not to get the booster. He reiterated that position the next day on the talk show of Iowa-based commentator Steve Deace, saying federal health authorities have been “corrupted by ideology.”
DeSantis’s posture against the boosters — which is at odds with the advice of public health officials and experts — shows how his skepticism of the coronavirus vaccines has hardened and how he has sought to make his position a 2024 campaign issue. Covid-19 is one of a handful of policy areas where DeSantis clashes with Trump, the clear polling leader in the Republican race. With federal health authorities endorsing the updated formula for the coronavirus vaccine ahead of a seasonal wave of respiratory illnesses, DeSantis, who is running a distant second in many polls, is leaning further into a longtime contrast with Trump, who this week defended his role in the vaccine rollout.
“This sudden resurfacing of [covid-19 news] has created a little bit of an opportunity for him,” said Florida-based pollster Brad Coker, “and he certainly seems to be taking advantage of it.”
The new coronavirus shots, recommended by the federal CDC for everyone 6 months and older, are updated to target the XBB lineage of variants that now accounts for most infections.
There is a nuanced debate within the public health field about the value of urging the updated booster for everyone rather than just people at higher risk from a covid-19 infection. But even some experts wary of blanket recommendations were critical of the DeSantis administration’s warning.
“It’s dangerous,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
He worries that recommending boosters for everyone could distract from the urgency of boosting those at risk of severe disease, but he said Florida officials went too far by dissuading young people who are immunocompromised or have other risk factors for severe disease from getting the new shot and casting doubt on covid-19 vaccination more broadly. “They have been given a platform and abused it,” he said.
Florida Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo, a DeSantis appointee who issued the booster shot warnings, previously discouraged young men from receiving coronavirus vaccines because of the risks of heart complications. The CDC and FDA responded with an open letter refuting his claims and charging he was spreading misinformation. A University of Florida medical school faculty task force determined he relied upon a flawed analysis, and experts have noted the risk of heart complications from contracting coronavirus is greater than the risks associated with vaccination.
In response to DeSantis’s criticism of the new booster, CDC Director Mandy Cohen said the vaccine has been proved safe and effective after thorough and independent review.
“Since this Administration’s launch of the largest adult vaccination program in our nation’s history, COVID-19 vaccines have saved millions of lives and kept countless people out of the hospital,” Cohen said in a written statement. “Public health experts are in broad agreement about these facts, and efforts to undercut vaccine uptake are unfounded and dangerous.”
The Florida Department of Health and the governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
DeSantis burst onto many GOP voters’ radar because of his response to the coronavirus pandemic. As a first-term governor, he reopened his state quicker than most and became a vocal opponent of mask mandates, vaccine mandates and school shutdowns.
Initially, he joined other leaders from both parties in promoting coronavirus vaccines, attending the vaccination of a 94-year-old military veteran live on “Fox & Friends.” When Florida hospitals were overwhelmed by unvaccinated patients during the surge of the delta variant in summer 2021, DeSantis’s aides touted the state’s high vaccination rate in seniors and the steps the governor took to promote shots.
But he and many conservative voters eventually turned against the shots and, late last year, DeSantis called for a Florida grand jury to investigate any “wrongdoing” related to them.
On the campaign trail, DeSantis often calls for “accountability” for those involved in the U.S. coronavirus response at the national level, saying that — unlike Trump — he would have fired Anthony S. Fauci, a longtime medical adviser who played a key role.
While DeSantis’s covid-19 response has always been core to his political identity — it’s often the first thing Republican voters praise about him — the updated booster shot and some scattered new masking measures at schools have put the issue back in the news.
DeSantis supporters also pounced on an interview Trump did this week with conservative podcast host Megyn Kelly, who pressed Trump on whether he regretted aspects of the federal coronavirus response, including the rollout of vaccines.
Trump told Kelly he hears from Democratic friends: “‘I don’t understand one thing: Why don’t you talk more about the vaccine. It was one of the greatest things you’ve ever done.’ … I say ‘I’m not going to talk about it one way or the other.’”
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, did not respond directly Friday when asked if Trump has a position on the new booster shots. Instead, he reiterated Trump’s criticisms of DeSantis on covid-19, emphasizing that the governor enacted shutdowns early on and saying Trump never mandated vaccines and “left it up to the states and their governors to choose what was best for their people.”
Bryan Griffin, press secretary for the DeSantis campaign, said in a statement that DeSantis is “the only candidate with a proven record of fighting back and capable of bringing a reckoning for the wrongdoings committed.”
DeSantis has shied away from criticizing Trump on many fronts and often focused on touting his own record. His campaign recently released a video showcasing DeSantis’s covid-19 response without mentioning Trump — prompting some Republicans, including Deace, the Iowa commentator, to suggest he should hit Trump more directly on the issue.
“I think he is getting there,” Deace, who supports DeSantis for president, said in an interview, when asked if he wished DeSantis contrasted with Trump more aggressively. “I think they’re closer than they were a couple of months ago.” On Deace’s show Thursday, DeSantis ridiculed Trump’s recent comment that he didn’t know who gave Fauci a presidential commendation. (It was Trump, according to a White House statement.)
Coronavirus is a distant memory for many voters — and while it intersects with many broader issues important to the GOP base, the virus itself does not register as a major issue of concern for voters, according to recent public polling.
But Republican voters from the early primary state of New Hampshire brought it up unprompted in a recent focus group according to the moderator, James Johnson of the polling firm J.L. Partners. Some referenced a “plandemic,” he said, echoing the false idea that the coronavirus pandemic was a fake crisis created for nefarious purposes. They believed the coronavirus made the 2020 election unfair to Trump, Johnson said, and suggested new coronavirus measures would lead to an unfair 2024 election.
While Trump was the favorite candidate — reflecting national and state-level polling — a couple voters had doubts about his handling of covid-19 and role in the vaccine, Johnson said. Still, he said, for a Trump-leaning voter, “it didn’t feel like that would be enough to switch them off Trump.”
The updated covid-19 vaccine is colloquially called a booster, but federal officials avoid that term because it contains a new formula rather than an additional dose of an existing shot. In its guidance advising caution with the new boosters, the Florida Department of Health cited the “absence of any meaningful booster-specific clinical trial data performed in humans.” But regulators and leading experts say such research is not necessary to update the formula of a vaccine that has already undergone extensive clinical trials and safety monitoring.
Federal regulators approved the new booster shots based on reviews of manufacturing data and on lab studies showing the updated formula elicited higher antibody response against the XBB variants compared with the existing booster.
They say data showing the first versions of the coronavirus mRNA vaccines were safe and effective after tens of millions of doses were administered is enough to offer similar confidence in the updated vaccines because similar manufacturing processes are used for both.
Officials take a similar approach when determining the composition of the annual flu shot months ahead of the flu season.
And they can monitor the effectiveness of the updated boosters as they are deployed, as they did with the most recent booster that proved to be effective in reducing the risk of hospitalization and death.
“Time will tell as vaccine effectiveness studies are carried out in real world in real time as the virus circulates once people have been vaccinated,” said Jeffrey Duchin, the top public health official for Seattle and King County, Wash. “But the information we have based on what we know about the science of vaccines, about neutralizing antibody production and our experience with covid-19 vaccines so far suggest that these vaccines will be comparatively effective to our previous vaccines, which means they provide meaningful protection against hospitalization, death and they provide protection against long covid.”
The CDC estimates 12 percent of Floridians have received the bivalent booster shot that has been available for a year, compared with 17 percent of all Americans. In contrast, 70 percent of Floridians received their initial vaccines before boosters became available — the same rate as Americans overall.
Scott Rivkees, who served as Florida’s surgeon general under DeSantis between 2019 and 2021, worries confidence in vaccines in Florida is eroding — not just for covid, but also for influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) ahead of a fall and winter respiratory virus season.
“What will we see is severe illness from these conditions which could be vaccine preventable for many individuals, particularly those who are medically vulnerable,” said Rivkees, who is now a professor at the Brown University School of Public Health.
Asked whether the office he once led can be trusted to provide accurate vaccine information, Rivkees said Floridians should instead turn to the CDC and major medical societies.