Despite 80,000 deaths, COVID fades as Florida political issue

The number of Floridians who have died from COVID-19 topped 80,000 this month, another tragic milestone amid the latest wave that is still killing up to 400 state residents a week.

But as the gubernatorial race enters its home stretch, the pandemic has played virtually no role in the campaigns.

DeSantis’ “freedom” program celebrates the state’s lack of COVID restrictions. Democrat Charlie Crist’s attacks on DeSantis have focused on abortion rights and the culture wars. COVID politics is not among the top issues on Crist’s campaign website.

“For most voters, it’s just not high on the priority list,” said Aubrey Jewett, professor of political science at the University of Central Florida. “If you ask voters, ‘What are your top five issues?’ maybe you get number five, but that’s just not a priority awareness. Many voters have moved past this issue. And they’re concerned about the economy and other things.

Kenneth Goodman, founder and director of the Institute of Bioethics and Health at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, said the unknowns of the COVID pandemic in Florida were largely managed despite the “intentionally weaponized” response. many state officials.

“We’re all tired of COVID, and we hope it goes away,” Goodman said. “But the reason everything is down is because of vaccinations, masks and social distancing when it was at its worst.”

DeSantis joined other governors in locking down the state in April 2020 and maintained restrictions such as bar closures and limited capacity for restaurants and other businesses through September.

But since around July 2020, when DeSantis said of the pandemic in a speech, “Jobs have been lost. Shops have been closed. Families have been separated,” but did not mention COVID deaths, the governor’s message was of “freedom” from lockdowns, mask requirements, social distancing and COVID-19 vaccination mandates. COVID.

At an event in Orange County last month, DeSantis lambasted Democratic officials who wanted him to impose new COVID restrictions when cases began to rise two years ago in July 2020.

“If we had done this, they would have wanted to do this, this state would be in the toilet right now,” DeSantis said. “We made the right decision in keeping the state open.”

DeSantis didn’t mention that as of the end of this month, Florida was the epicenter of the COVID outbreak, with 257 deaths reported on July 31 alone. More than 4,300 COVID-related deaths were reported in August during the first of four major waves of the virus in the state.

DeSantis has often compared Florida favorably to Democratic states such as New York and California when it comes to death rates.

But comparing different states is difficult, said Jason Salemi, an associate professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida College of Public Health. New York suffered a large chunk of its COVID deaths early in the pandemic, while California and Florida saw different waves.

In Florida, however, more than half of the state’s more than 80,000 COVID deaths have occurred after the full introduction of vaccines in the spring of 2021, ranking Florida second in county and 13th per capita in what she calls COVID deaths “preventable,” according to the Brown School of Public Health.

“Our worst surge came after vaccines became widely available and was likely due to a confluence of factors,” Salemi said. “But the timing of the worst peak for various states, in terms of mortality, has differed. … It’s really hard to step into a time machine and say, “What if we had done things differently in California or New York or Florida? Unfortunately, this is a question that cannot be answered.

This summer, Florida led the nation in COVID deaths for three straight months, with about 71 people dying a day at the height of the latest surge in July. Salemi said that could be expected, as Florida is the third-largest state in terms of population.

But, Salemi said, “mortality in the current wave in Florida [has] not been sweet. … We had four waves in Florida in which we had over 200 deaths a day at our peak, so that’s a lot less than the other waves. But when you have 71 people dying on top of a wave every day, that’s not what I would call trivial.

There were about 400 COVID deaths per week in Florida in August, according to the CDC’s latest report.

Despite ongoing pandemic deaths, Democrats’ messaging on COVID has been muddled over the past year.

The party has largely followed the example of President Biden’s administration, which trumpeted the lifting of mask recommendations last year amid a failed attempt to return to normal by July 4, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which relaxed its guidelines and said COVID was “here to stay” in August.

Across the country, Democrats have been cautious about COVID policies after the backlash against masks and lockdowns, especially after Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won last year.

During his campaign, Youngkin criticized the state’s school closure policies.

New York Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul ended the mask mandate on public transportation last week. In Florida, Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, then a gubernatorial candidate, posted a photo of herself without a mask on the plane after the Transportation Security Administration ended its rule requiring masks on planes in April. “Peace to the TSA mask mandate,” she wrote.

Still, a majority of Americans in an April AP-NORC poll, 56%, favored mask requirements on planes, trains and buses. But in August, a New York Times poll found that the share of even “very liberal” people who said COVID posed a big risk to their own personal health had dropped 13 points from the start of the year. year to settle at only 34%.

“They can see public opinion polls as well as anyone,” Jewett said. “So Democrats are trying to hit other things that they think are more important, or that voters care about.”

But, he says, “I sometimes wonder if there is not potentially an opening [on the issue]. Because often in politics, voters don’t care about things until you start addressing them.

DeSantis has gone further than many other GOP governors, hosting roundtables with ‘natural immunity’ proponents, telling high school kids to take off their masks at a press conference, and not recommending COVID vaccines. for children, whom he referred to as “baby jabs”. ”

The governor has also fought local school boards and governments over their continued mask mandates following his 2021 order allowing parents to skip them.

Crist’s running mate Karla Hernandez-Mats, president of the Miami Teachers’ Union, hinted at the controversy at an event in Orlando on Tuesday, but immediately pivoted to the campaign’s abortion rights message. .

“The funny thing is they actually attacked me for keeping our kids safe in our schools and preventing unnecessary illness and death,” Hernandez-Mats said. “And yet they turn around and literally risk the lives of every woman in the state by preventing any legal exemptions, including life-saving procedures. At every turn, Ron finds a way to play God with our lives.

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Republican National Committee spokeswoman Julia Friedland slammed Hernandez-Mats on school closures and mask mandates, calling her ‘perfect for lockdown lover Crist’s unpopular, anti-parent campaign’ .

Goodman acknowledged that any decision to close schools or require masks would affect children’s education, but he defended the officials who issued the call.

“It wasn’t that it was a mistake,” Goodman said. “It’s not that we overreacted. You have to play with the cards that are dealt to you, and they were probability cards in an environment of a brand new pathogen. I think the public health authorities have done a brilliant job.

“Did they make mistakes? Of course they did. But anyone who likes to criticize should imagine it was their decision, where if you make the wrong decision a lot of people die,” he added.

Despite people’s waning concerns about COVID, the disease will remain a major issue going forward, Goodman said. Part of the problem is that most people don’t understand the risks of getting sick with the virus.

“We’ve known for some time that this kind of uncertainty and this kind of fear can be exploited for political gain,” Goodman said. “Because people like to feel freedom-loving. [But] with freedom comes responsibility. And in the current political environment, we weren’t interested in accountability. We were only interested in freedom.

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