TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Gov. Ron DeSantis has drawn national attention for bucking federal health-care officials over the handling of the novel coronavirus, but a group of Florida physicians said Thursday the governor’s push to reopen the state and block precautions are a main reason for a sharp increase in the number of residents suffering from COVID-19.
Bernard Ashby, a Miami cardiologist and leader of the Florida chapter of the Committee to Protect Health Care, said DeSantis should spend more time talking to people about the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines and less time attacking federal infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci in hopes of scoring political points.
"While hospitals in our state were filling up, DeSantis was shouting about ‘Freedom over Faucism,’" said Ashby who leads the group of 405 Florida physicians. "If DeSantis were as concerned about stopping COVID-19 spread as he was about coming up with these clever jabs about Dr. Fauci, we might not be in this position."
Ashby said DeSantis has bragged about Florida’s approach to handling the pandemic, but he accused the governor of being reactive and not having a plan to protect residents.
"As a physician and a Floridian, I am frankly angry and ashamed. You know the Florida-man moniker unfortunately holds true in this particular circumstance," Ashby said, referring to the stereotype that people in Florida do bizarre or stupid things.
Christina Pushaw, a DeSantis spokeswoman, said the physicians aren’t well-informed and cited the governor’s focus on vaccinating seniors.
"The governor has made countless public appearances all over the state to encourage vaccination, and he has spoken positively of the vaccines in public remarks nearly 100 times this year," Pushaw said in a statement to The News Service of Florida. "He’s proud of the successful rollout and the Seniors First strategy, which means 85 percent of our most vulnerable population is vaccinated, and thousands of lives saved. COVID cases, hospitalizations and especially deaths are down significantly compared to this time last year."
DeSantis twice this week has shrugged off the spike in COVID-19 cases as a "seasonal" event and said he’s not worried about the numbers. But Gainesville infectious-disease specialist Frederick Southwick, a member of the physicians’ committee, said DeSantis is incorrect.
"Our present surge of infections consist of those who have not been vaccinated," said Southwick, who said he spent 10 days earlier this year administering 35,000 vaccine doses.
DeSantis said Wednesday that people who get vaccinated will likely avoid serious illness or death from the virus.
While St. Petersburg immunologist Mona Mangat said she was glad the governor promoted vaccines as being effective, she worries about his other actions, such as preventing businesses from requiring that people show proof of vaccination --- an issue known as banning vaccine "passports."
"At the same time as DeSantis says the vaccines are effective --- which they are --- he’s also banning businesses from requiring proof of vaccination." said Mangat, also a member of the physicians’ committee. "He has taken away private companies’ ability to protect their employees and customers by requiring the safe and readily available vaccine."
With the delta variant of the coronavirus playing a key role in the surge, the number of COVID-19 infections in Florida jumped from 10,459 cases during the week of June 11 to 45,603 cases during the week of July 9, according to the latest available state data.
Positivity rates have also soared in recent weeks, going from 3.3 percent during the week of June 11 to 11.5 percent the week of July 9.
Meanwhile, the number of people getting vaccinated during that same span dropped by 46 percent.
Also, vaccination rates among some Florida health care workers are among the lowest in the nation. An AARP report said just 42 percent of the state’s nursing home workers had been fully vaccinated as of last month, putting Florida well behind the national average of 56 percent.
The spike in positivity combined with drops in vaccination rates has led to an increase in numbers of patients being hospitalized in Florida facilities. And unlike the first wave of COVID-19 hospitalizations last year that severely affected seniors, hospitals are reporting the newest wave of inpatient hospitalizations involves younger patients.
Baptist Health Jacksonville Chief Medical Officer Timothy Groover said Wednesday that 44 percent of the patients hospitalized with COVID-19 at Baptist Health in the last month were in their 40s or younger.
"COVID-19 is a preventable disease like measles, but herd immunity is quickly slipping out of our reach because a quarter of Americans refuse to get the vaccine," Mangat said.