By Dan Merica, CNN
Coronavirus rates are climbing in Florida, with the latest data showing Florida’s current seven-day average of new daily Covid-19 cases is by far the highest in the nation.
But Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is up for reelection in 2022 and has long been rumored as a possible presidential candidate in 2024, remains steadfast in his more laissez faire response to the virus, dismissing ongoing criticism from Democrats and medical officials.
He argued on Wednesday that the recent spike is all part of the seasonal fluctuations in the virus, even as he urged Floridians to get vaccinated. He touted data that shows if you are vaccinated, your chance of becoming seriously ill or dying is “effectively zero.” And his spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, noted that DeSantis has been arguing for months that he “anticipated cases rising in Florida and other southern states this summer, as there was a seasonal increase last summer in these states.”
“It’s a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern it follows in the Sun Belt states,” DeSantis said earlier this week, before adding that he believes the cases will drop in August.
This surge — spurred by the more transmissible Delta variant that has health officials across the country worried — is the latest chapter in the Florida governor’s fight against the virus, one that has been both heralded and condemned as rates in the state have continually shifted. Early in the pandemic, despite DeSantis’ decision to shutter the state later than others and reopen sooner, it appeared that Florida had avoided the worst of the virus. But surges in summer 2020 and again now have put the governor’s argument that his leadership successfully guided the state through the pandemic in an exposed position.
Florida, like many states across the country, has seen Covid-19 cases rising in recent weeks. According to a CNN analysis of Johns Hopkins University data, Florida is averaging 6,492 cases per day, a figure that has nearly doubled in one week and quadrupled in a month. By this measure, Florida tops California, with a current daily average of 4,806 cases, and Texas, with a current daily average of 4,802.
Between July 15 and July 21, Florida has 45,449 new cases of coronavirus, by far the most in the country.
DeSantis has encouraged vaccines in his push to curb the pandemic — “If you are vaccinated, though, the number of people that end up hospitalized after is almost zero. It’s incredibly, incredibly low,” he said this week — but he has fully ruled out another lockdown in the state, decried any kind of vaccine passport program and lambasted state jurisdictions that are starting to tell vaccinated people to continue to wear masks.
“I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, even if you’re healthy and vaccinated you must wear a mask because we’re seeing increased cases,” DeSantis said Wednesday during a press conference in St. Petersburg. “Understand what that message is sending to people who aren’t vaccinated. It’s telling them that the vaccines don’t work.”
Even while DeSantis is pushing vaccines and touting his Covid response, his political website is seizing on anti-science sentiment aimed at experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a top adviser to President Joe Biden. Fauci has drawn the ire of Republicans across the country, including from former President Donald Trump.
“Don’t Fauci My Florida,” reads a T-shirt and koozie for sale on the governor’s campaign website. Another set of koozies features a quote from DeSantis: “How the hell am I going to be able to drink a beer with a mask on?”
Helen Aguirre Ferre, executive director of the Republican Party of Florida, dismissed the items being sold as nothing more than a “great opportunity to have some lighthearted fun and give his supporters a chance to feel even more connected with his message of keeping Florida free” and stood by the Fauci criticism. She also claimed that the website wasn’t DeSantis’ official campaign website because DeSantis has yet to file his reelection paperwork.
The governor’s response, along with products sold by his campaign, have led Democrats to pounce on the latest surge, arguing it shows DeSantis’ failed leadership on the issue.
“We have a governor who has not taken Covid seriously from the very beginning. You know, he is essentially right now treating it like a joke. He’s got campaign merchandise on his website saying ‘Don’t Fauci My Florida.’ And we’ve had nearly 40,000 Floridians die of Covid,” Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told CNN this week. “And look, I would rather see us ‘Fauci our Florida’ than have people go through death by DeSantis.”
And Brad Woodhouse, head of outside group Protect Our Care, said DeSantis “continues to reject commonsense measures to slow the spread of the virus” and he “should be focused on supporting the overwhelmed hospitals in his state.”
DeSantis’ response comes as governors nationwide try to grapple with the uptick in cases. In Arkansas, where cases have been growing and only 36% of people are fully vaccinated, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has begun meeting directly with people and urging them to get vaccinated. And some governors, like West Virginia’s Jim Justice, have held weeks of lotteries for people who get vaccinated. Covid rates in the state remain low, but only 39% of West Virginians are fully vaccinated.
“If you’re not vaccinated,” Justice said during a recent state Covid briefing, “you are part of the problem rather than part of the solution.”
CNN reported on Tuesday that staff at a large hospital in Jacksonville believed they had already seen the worst of the coronavirus pandemic, but that cases of Covid at the hospital have doubled since last week and officials are worried they are “days away from running at capacity and really having significant staffing issues.”
“We could be an entire hospital full of Covid in a matter of a month if things don’t begin to slow down or vaccinations don’t increase,” said Chad Neilsen, the director of infection prevention at the hospital. Neilsen added that 90% of Covid patients at the hospital are not vaccinated.
This was echoed on Wednesday by Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry, a Republican, who said the best “path to moving beyond the surge is increasing our percentage of vaccinations.”
“The math is clear, vaccines work,” Curry said. “Restrictions to our economy and personal freedoms are not the answer.”
Coronavirus cases remain far lower than they were months ago. But the spread of the Delta variant has health experts worried, leading White House officials to warn that those not vaccinated are at serious risk from variants. The US is now averaging 34,056 new Covid-19 cases each day, according to Johns Hopkins University. That’s a 55% increase over last week.
“This is becoming a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky said last week. “We are seeing outbreaks of cases in parts of the country that have low vaccination coverage, because unvaccinated people are at risk.”
Hanging over all of this, including the latest surge in Florida, is DeSantis’ political aspirations.
The governor, who narrowly won his first term in 2018, is up for reelection in 2022, facing what are expected to be well-financed challenges from Democrats Florida Rep. Charlie Crist and Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried — both whom have attacked the Republican governor over coronavirus.
“This is a result of @GovRonDeSantis being asleep at the wheel on vaccination outreach,” Crist tweeted, linking to a story about hospitals filling up with Covid patients. “This inaction has put our people and economy at risk. Do better, Governor, lives are on the line.”
And Fried has said, “No one wins because you were wrong, @GovRonDeSantis. What matters now is how we get back up, and work together to protect each other.”
Jesse Hunt, a spokesman for the Republican Governors Association, dismissed the critiques from Crist and Fried, arguing “Democrats and the press have tried countless times to make this an issue to no avail.”
“It’s a sad attempt at relevance,” Hunt said, “from two candidates who have failed to gain traction in the race.”
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