Governor needs to apologize for COVID deaths

By the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board, Oct 12, 2021

Florida has overtaken New York in the total number of deaths from COVID-19, a testimony to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ failed policies surrounding the pandemic.

In May 2020, the conservative journal National Review published a glowing account of Florida’s early response to the pandemic, asking in the headline, “Where Does Ron DeSantis Go to Get His Apology?”

In praising Florida, the article correctly cited New York’s disastrous decision to move COVID-19 patients out of hospitals and into nursing homes, accelerating the spread among the population most vulnerable to the disease.

For more than a year, New York’s outsize death toll has been a stark reminder of the state’s failures in the initial weeks of outbreak, when less was known about how the disease spread and how to treat it.

But last week, after a summer of failure, Florida surpassed New York in total fatalities for the first time.

As of Tuesday, Florida has recorded 55,619 deaths, compared with 55,057 in New York, according to The New York Times’ coronavirus tracker.

Florida’s been steadily creeping up on New York in per capita deaths as well. We’re now No. 9 in the nation, at 259 deaths per 100,000 people; New York is No. 5, at 283 deaths per 100,000 people, a figure largely attributable to the state’s deadly mistakes at the start of the pandemic.

Which brings us to a question for the editors of National Review, and for Gov. DeSantis: Where do grieving Floridians go to get their apologies?

We shouldn’t expect one from DeSantis, who remains publicly convinced his COVID-19 strategy on lockdowns, masks, vaccines — everything — has been infallible.

He’s never acknowledged the scope of the disaster that was Florida’s summer of 2021.

At the beginning of July, Florida had recorded about 38,000 COVID-19 deaths, which means that between then and Oct. 1, more than 17,000 families lost loved ones.

New York? It had about 1,500 deaths during that same period.

All of this during a period when anyone 12 or older could get a free COVID-19 vaccine, and when potentially lifesaving antibody treatments became widely available.

If New York did such a rotten job at the start of the pandemic, which it did, what does that say about the job Florida has done since then?

Maybe it had something to do with DeSantis’ change in strategy.

National Review in May 2020 said the governor gave counties “latitude in how they reacted to the crisis,” because, as DeSantis explained then, Florida is a “big, diverse state. The epidemic is not going to affect this state uniformly, and what’s appropriate in Miami and Broward may not be appropriate for Jacksonville or the Panhandle. And that’s pretty much the way we did it.”

That latitude melted away as the months wore on.

DeSantis prohibited cities and counties from enforcing mask mandates, forgave fines against those who had flouted the mandates, banned school districts from requiring students to wear masks and threatened to impose fines in the millions against governments that require employees to get vaccinated.

Similarly, the freedom that Republicans often give private industry to do business also evaporated. A DeSantis-inspired bill passed the Legislature that banned businesses, including cruise lines, from requiring proof of vaccinations.

Meanwhile, the governor appeared to grow increasingly skeptical of vaccines, which has proved more effective at curbing hospitalizations and deaths than any treatment. After encouraging seniors to get vaccinated last spring, DeSantis stopped aggressively promoting vaccines. Eventually, he cluelessly suggested vaccines benefit the individual who gets one, but not the public at large. Perhaps worse, the governor indulged a speaker who repeated a false vaccine conspiracy.

DeSantis hired a surgeon general who’s also a vaccine skeptic and made a physician who called mask-wearers “retards” part of his COVID-19 response brain trust.

The governor’s ambivalence toward vaccines might explain why Florida lags behind New York in the percentage of residents who are fully vaccinated — 58% versus 64%.

The latest surge is abating across the nation, thank goodness.

And the governor who accepts no responsibility for his state’s summer of suffering has been quick to take credit for the declines.

Last Friday, the day Florida overtook New York in total deaths, DeSantis posted a tweet that said, “We set up 25 monoclonal antibody sites across Florida, and we’ve seen about a 70% reduction in COVID-19 hospitalizations.”

The governor’s move to set up antibody treatment centers across the state was smart and effective. But that was an attempt to treat infections rather than prevent them, and he has no way of knowing how many people avoided hospital stays because of those treatments.

More likely the bulk of that decline in hospitalizations simply mirrored the steep drop in the number of positive cases, a decline that has nothing to do with antibody treatments people get after they’re infected.

The governor is fond of saying he believes in following the data.

So are we, and the relentless death toll shows that DeSantis’ COVID-19 policies have failed. If anyone owes Floridians an apology, it’s the occupant of the Governor’s Mansion.

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