FORT LAUDERDALE — In his first news conference since the omicron variant surged across Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis badmouthed vaccines while pushing for unproven treatments against the mutated pathogen.
“With omicron, you know, the vaccinations are not preventing infection,” DeSantis said Monday at Broward Health Medical Center.
But since the beginning of nationwide vaccine rollouts, doctors and scientists have emphasized that although the virus can infect inoculated people, they offer the best protection against severe illness and death, even for those who catch the heavily mutated omicron variant. Those with booster shots are the most protected, authorities say.
Statistics from Miami-Dade County hospitals confirmed Monday that the overwhelming majority of COVID-19 patients are unvaccinated — 79% of them, the county reported.
Infections have exploded statewide. Florida reported 536,748 new infections in the two weeks ended Sunday, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s more than during the first two weeks of August, when the delta variant surgedacross the state.
DeSantis held his last public appearance to tell the public his administration’s plan to fight the virus on Dec. 17.
In the week leading up to that day, Florida added an average of about 5,300 new infections. In the past seven days, it’s been nearly 52,000, data from the CDC shows.
As case counts spiked over the holidays, DeSantis offered no public statements or guidance on combating the disease.
He did not explain on Monday his public absence over the holidays. He attended the Orange Bowl college football playoff game at Hard Rock Stadium on New Year’s Eve, followed by a worship service at Miami Baptist Church, according to his published schedule.
When asked whether DeSantis has tested positive for COVID-19, spokeswoman Christina Pushaw said, “I am unable to answer questions about the governor’s private medical decisions and do not have access to his personal health information.”
DeSantis’ office told the news media in April that he had received a shot of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. A J&J booster shot decreases risk of hospitalization by 85%, a preliminary study of South African health workers published Wednesday found.
Pushaw would not say whether the governor received a booster shot.
DeSantis and state officials at the Monday news conference made little or no mention of the free vaccines but instead pushed for monoclonal antibody treatments, especially those that have not been proven effective against the omicron variant.
What are monoclonal antibodies?
Monoclonal antibodies are made in a laboratory and are given to patients directly through an infusion. When administered promptly, they make it more difficult for the virus to reproduce and cause harm.
Studies have shown that two of the three approved drugs for coronavirus antibody treatment — including the ones DeSantis wants — do little to counter the effects of the omicron variant, first reported in South Africa. The third approved treatment, manufactured by the London-based pharmaceutical giant GlaxoKlineSmith, is effective but is in short supply.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced on Dec. 23 it would pause shipments of Regeneron’s and Eli Lilly’s COVID-19 treatments after the Food and Drug Administration said they were likely ineffective against omicron.
But on Thursday, HHS reversed course, acknowledging that delta still accounts for a sizable share of infections in some parts of the country.
The CDC found that the omicron mutation accounted for an estimated 78% of infections during the week ending Dec. 25 in the South. Delta comprised about 21.5% but accounted for larger shares of infections in New England, the west and the mid-Atlantic.
DeSantis has long touted antibody treatments as a solution to the coronavirus, touring Florida this past summer to mark the opening of clinics that dispense them. He urged their use again Monday moving forward as omicron cases rise, even if they’re most effective against variants that no longer are dominant.
“Omicron is not the only variant that’s out there,” he said. “We feel there’s no need for it to be sitting on the shelves.”
HHS will be shipping these treatments to Florida, DeSantis said.
He said the state is interested in opening up to 10 new sites and that he has asked the federal government for 30,000 to 40,000 doses of antibody treatments. He said the state has almost $1 billion set aside for them.
Antibody treatments more expensive than vaccines
COVID-19 treatment costs taxpayers far more than the vaccines. Regeneron, for example, charges the U.S. $2,100 per dose, the company told investors in September. Pfizer and its partner, BioNTech, on the other hand sells its vaccines to the government for $24 a shot, the Wall Street Journal reported in July.
He said the state intends to open additional treatment sites in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and in Central Florida.
Early indications show that people who contract omicron have milder symptoms than other variants of the disease, but doctors warn it appears to be far more contagious.
Even as a wave of COVID-19 patients fill hospital beds, the latest surge is much smaller compared with the summer, when the virus’ delta mutation ripped through Florida, overwhelming intensive care units with mostly unvaccinated patients.
COVID-19 hospitalizations more than tripled over the past two weeks across Florida, data collected by HHS shows. Hospitals statewide reported 5,293 COVID-19 patients Monday. More than 10,000 sick people occupied medical facility beds during August and September.
About 12% of adult patients are in ICU beds, compared with more than 20% during the summertime delta surge.
Between 2% and 3% of patients statewide are children, HHS reported. Children rarely accounted for more than 2% before December.
Medical staff tended to 124 pediatric patients as of Monday, more than double the count two weeks ago. More than 200 children sick with the respiratory disease filled hospital beds during the height of delta.
At-home test kits remain in short supply
DeSantis also said he blamed the federal government for the shortage of at-home testing available and said his staff is working on guidelines for people who should be tested.
President Joe Biden said on Dec. 21 that the federal government will start delivering 500 million at-home COVID-19 test kits this month to people who request them. But the administration has not offered new details on the plan since then.
As shortages lead to long lines at testing sites, Ladapo said he wants the state health department to reduce “low value testing,” such as those done for children, he said, and focus on “high value testing,” or testing on the elderly. He ridiculed regular testing done on third-graders in Los Angeles County.
Echoing the sentiment of vaccine refusers and the governor, Florida’s top medical official said, “It’s really time for people to be living, to make the decisions they want regarding vaccination, to enjoy the fact that many people have natural immunity.”
On Monday, as Florida’s tourist season was in full swing, the state’s COVID-19 tally barreled past 4.3 million. The preventable disease has killed at least 62,541 residents statewide, including 124 people since DeSantis’ last news conference.
Image Credits: Gerard Albert III / Palm Beach Post