Buckle up because this piece covers three years of disinformation, derangement and death at the hands of Florida Governor Ron Desantis, organized principally by subject matter and then in chronological order.
We'll continue to update this post as a team when new information becomes available. Because I initially wrote some of this content for this post, some parts might shift between first and third person (sorry! we'll update to third across the thread as we go along!).
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Florida's COVID-19 response stands out as an anomaly in many ways - none of them good.
Yet, DeSantis has been hailed recently by political commentators making outrageous claims about his “stock rising” as the next great republican leader, despite the trail of death and despair he leaves behind.
Few governors have a worse track record on COVID-19 than DeSantis. Even New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, exposed for how the state chose to misleadingly re-classify nursing home deaths, fared better than DeSantis, despite the constant criticism from the right.
What Florida knew and when they knew it.
Florida knew that COVID-19 posed a major public health threat in January 2020, when the CDC sent multiple urgent messages to state officials, organized calls, and managed information sessions warning Florida to “prepare for a pandemic.”
The chief data manager for the Florida Department of Health (DOH) emailed superiors on January 24, 2020 urging them to build a similar information, surveillance and data portal after discussing the concerning trends with a colleague in the Florida Department of Emergency Management (DEM). Approval for such a system would not come until March 12, 2020.
On January 31, 2020, Palm Beach county health officials asked the state for help informing the community about the virus, for public presentations and for coordinating resources. They never received those materials.
While public officials in the United States told the public not to purchase masks, the state was privately procuring them for the hospital systems, concerned about their supplies depleting.
By Valentine’s Day, February 14, 2020, the state was monitoring more than 500 people, the CDC was warning about disruptions to supply-chains across the world, and the Department of Health was preparing to push most of its employees to telework.
On February 25, 2020, DOH told the press there were no confirmed cases, even though at least three people tested positive by that point.
Madison County asked the state to help them find masks for hospital staff on February 27, 2020, since their half of the Florida panhandle had none in stock.
DeSantis repeatedly shunned and sidelined Rivkees for telling the truth about what we knew about COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, for commenting that mask wearing would need to continue into 2021, and later for trying to be transparent with lawmakers about the state’s missteps.
The state lied about the number of people we were monitoring and testing on March 4, 2020 telling the Tampa Bay Times there were “16 pending testing results and monitoring more than 240 people.” In fact, the state was monitoring more than twice that many people weeks before that statement was made.
Yet, the federal government sought to publicly dismiss any risk posed by the virus for weeks, and the Florida Department of Health (DOH) refused to release any data at all, contradicting its own experts who warned of the impending crisis.
In fact, Florida saw some of the first confirmed-cases in the country, but the Governor’s then-spokesperson went on a campaign to smear experts who proposed public health measures to help stop the spread.
DeSantis lied and said there was no community spread in Florida on March 10, 2020, even though DOH was aware of community spread in January by that point, and the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in Florida had no known contact with anyone who traveled.
DeSantis and DOH lied about where Florida cases were coming from, and what the primary concerns were related to travel and community spread in the earliest months of the pandemic.
Trump’s sinophobia sought to make COVID-19 an exclusively Asian threat, which was carried through in Florida’s earliest response days, when a more global-view of the pandemic could have made a meaningful difference.
Calling COVID-19 a “Chinese virus” forced policies at the state level to focus on testing persons who had recently traveled to or from China.
What the state should have been looking at early on were the cases coming in from Europe, as none of the first 500 reports received who ended up being positive traveled to or had contact with someone who recently traveled to China. If the state hadn’t been so focused on China, they could have caught the cases that were already in our own backyard.
DeSantis finally (and far too late) shut down most businesses April 1, 2020. Three weeks later, he would convene with campaign donors and business interests, against the advice of experts, to reopen the state.
When experts cautioned during the first week of reopening that the death toll would reach 4,000 in Florida if public health measures were not enforced, DeSantis’ spokesperson called the scientists “alarmist.”
Thousands died in the ensuing months as a result.
The expert gets fired and the disinformation storm begins
When Trump peddled hydroxychloroquine, so did DeSantis. The drug was at least partially responsible for one teenager’s death in the state, and listed in the medical examiner’s report as a contributing cause of death in at least a dozen others by June, when the FDA reversed its Trump-backed approval of the drug as a treatment for the virus. DeSantis pushed the drug hard, resulting in unnecessary suffering and death.
In June, DeSantis lied about increases in summer cases, falsely attributing the rise to farm workers and immigrants. Dr. Fauci expressed concern about Florida’s increasing cases in June, noting that the state opened too quickly, while the “kill-grandma-to-save-my-business” crowds cheered on.
About that time, a COVID-19 outbreak shut down the state’s emergency response center, and state employees penned a public letter begging DeSantis to help them after family members of employees started dying. The state lied again in July when the press inquired about health care worker cases and deaths, falsely claiming it did not collect that information.
When cases skyrocketed in July, DeSantis lied to the public and denied the surge in hospitalizations and deaths, and refused to consider putting public health measures in place, despite the piling of bodies around him. He never even issued a statewide mask mandate.
DeSantis came under fire for the state’s hospital reporting in July, as well. The state apparently was not counting all COVID-19 hospitalizations the same way, and was erroneously counting occupied ICU beds as “vacant” if the person did not require “an intensive level of care” and could be kicked out of ICU if someone else needed the bed.
Changes in what constituted a COVID-19 death — already an issue of intense criticism as Florida never collected nor reported data about probable cases and deaths the way the CDC advised them to in April — seemed arbitrarily made, and resulted in months-long backlogs, and weren’t representative of the conditions on the ground.
After an alt-right blogger broke into state data systems and illegally reviewed death certificates the state had not publicly released (the events of how this happened are still unknown), DeSantis announced that every single COVID-19 death would have to put under additional “investigation.”
Politicizing COVID-19 deaths and suggesting his own health department suffered poor data reporting techniques (after profusely denying such accusations in May) was fodder for Trump, who touted conspiracy theories about the number of COVID-19 deaths.
The director of infectious diseases at the state department of health quit that very day after 15 years of service and serving as chief epidemiologist for the state’s pandemic response for the first six months of 2020.
Teachers hit back, too — fighting for their health, safety and lives, though they were forced to teach in-person anyway while their lawsuit made its way through the legal system at a snail’s pace.
During that time, DeSantis lied about COVID-19 and cases in children, ordered health department officials not to advise schools about safely reopening, and awkwardly compared opening school buildings to the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.
Since schools in Florida were forced to reopen last August, more than 70,000 K-12 student and staff cases have been confirmed by the state, and pediatric cases soared as a result of reopening school buildings.
Those numbers don’t include cases during the entire first month of schools being open, which began opening as early as August 10, and it doesn’t include numbers from those who caught cases from those who caught COVID-19 at school, those who were hospitalized, or the teachers and staff who have died.
DeSantis even suggested at one point that children exposed to positive cases didn’t even need to quarantine. He invited a radical “herd immunity” panel to back his school reopening plan, much to the dismay of actual experts.
Raids, Elections and Disinformation
In the leadup to the November election, the amount of deceit around COVID-19 increased in lock-step with the state’s cases.
Weekly reports sent by the White House COVID-19 Task Force to each state weren’t being released by the governor’s office, despite the task force’s recommendation to make them public. The Orlando Sentinel had to sue the state to see the reports. After Florida and a handful of other states refused to release the state reports, the White House Task Force decided to release all of the reports publicly.
Those Task Force reports showed much more serious conditions in Florida than state officials let on, with recommendations for shutting down much of the state until community spread was under control. DeSantis again silenced state health officials, ordering them not to discuss COVID-19 at all in the days leading up to the election,
Less than a week after the first research paper on COVID-19 in schools in Florida was published, DeSantis ordered his armed police to raid my home, threaten my family, and steal my computer equipment. The warrant was signed by a family court judge who had been appointed by DeSantis and sworn in on the bench less than a month - it was the first warrant he ever signed.
The raid resulted in calls for investigations from state and national legislators and outcry from experts. Ron Filipowski, a Republican appointed to a commission that recommends judicial appointments to DeSantis announced his resignation on Twitter, calling the raid unconscionable.
I was on Chris Cuomo’s show that very night to make sure DeSantis knew that scientists and whistleblowers would never be silenced by such tactics. Two years later to the day, the state agreed to dismiss the case.
A week after the raid, the Sun-Sentinel revealed that the state had even stopped reporting COVID-19 deaths in the lead-up to the November 2020 election to make coronavirus stats appear more favorable than they really were.
New Year, New Failures for Florida
In late December 2020 and into early January 2021, the state’s botched vaccine rollout plan had senior-citizens waiting in freezing temperatures for days on end for their shot, often times without there being enough supply for those in line.
After the public embarrassment over the vaccine rollout, the Florida Department of Emergency Management wrestled control of the vaccine distribution plan away from the Department of Health.
And when the federal government offered help with Florida’s failed vaccine rollout, DeSantis falsely claimed the state didn’t need it, depriving hundreds of thousands of people who would have been vaccinated under that program access to the life-saving shots.
Not only was the initial rollout an embarrassment, but for weeks afterward a new controversy about corruption at every level in how vaccines were distributed would emerge.
Vaccine tourism allegations plagued the state, and VIP lists and pop-up sites to give affluent, white Republican communities exclusive access to vaccines made the state the poster-child for failed leadership.
Add to that DeSantis’ threats to take vaccines to “more friendly places” when challenged about why vaccines were given out as political favors and for campaign donations, or why the state refused to set up vaccination sites in rural and democratic-leaning counties, and it’s hard to frame the state’s COVID-19 vaccination response - whether under the control of DOH or DEM - as a “success.”
Before the takeover of the Biden campaign in January 2021, Trump’s Task Force warned Florida that it was in “full-COVID resurgence,” just as on-campus school attendance rates in the state jumped 20%.
CDC guidance for school reopening released in January 2021 showed that all Florida counties should switch to virtual-only instruction for middle and high schools because of high community case rates and the lack of mitigation measures inside the schools themselves.
By the end of January 2021, the Task Force was recommending the state shut down all restaurants, bars, gyms and non-essential businesses. About the same time, DeSantis became the subject of a federal investigation for the widespread corruption in handling the vaccine rollout.
DeSantis muzzled Surgeon General Scott Rivkees from speaking to the press, congress and state legislatures investigating the mishandling and corruption regarding the vaccine rollout in Florida.
Within a week of each other, DeSantis’ director of emergency management, and even his long-time accomplice and Chief of Staff, abruptly quit as the threat of both a Department of Justice investigation and a congressional inquiry mounted. Of note, the former director of DEM, ally to Desantis and Matt Gaetz, and current congressman Jared Moskowitz claimed he made the decisions about the early vaccine placements, though there's no indication as to whether he faces prosecution at this time.
By February 2021, Florida was in the midst of a COVID-19 resurgence, leading the country in cases of the B117 variant of COVID-19, and failing on all fronts of the pandemic.
We're currently working to catch us up from the last update on this piece.
Civil rights and wars on freedom of speech
Instead of owning up to his failures and working on saving the lives of the people he represents with COVID-19, DeSantis pushed legislation against private companies who block social media accounts of people who push dangerous conspiracy theories or harass and threaten people online at the same time that he hired psyop accounts on Twitter to ban the accounts of his critics.
DeSantis proposed a new law that would allow motorists to plow through crowds of legal protests, even if they injure or kill men, women and children.
And in his continued war on voting rights, DeSantis further restricted access to vote-by-mail, even though Florida had optional vote by mail before the pandemic without issues and DeSantis himself touted how “smoothly” Florida’s elections went in 2020.