TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A year after the COVID-19 outbreak temporarily shuttered much of the economy and plunged the nation into debates over masks and lockdowns, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis convened a hand-picked panel of health experts at the state Capitol on Thursday to help validate the actions he took against the pandemic.
One by one, the experts provided vindication for DeSantis, whose insistence on lifting lockdowns, reopening schools and undermining mask mandates came under scrutiny as the public health crisis unfolded.
The Republican’s handling of the virus will no doubt be a key issue in next year’s gubernatorial election, when DeSantis faces reelection.
The experts hailed from some of the world’s most prestigious institutions but their views have been rebuked by many mainstream scientists, including U.S. infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, who last year called the anti-lockdown, pro-herd immunity push “nonsense.”
Thursday’s panel echoed the governor’s assertions that lockdowns and mask mandates did little to slow the spread of the virus -- and might have even done more harm than good by damaging people’s mental health and stoking fear among some to not seek medical help at the risk of exposing themselves to the virus.
“I think the lockdowns were the single biggest public health mistake,” said Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford Medical School, who helped write the Great Barrington Declaration -- a petition that contends that lockdowns and other measures have spawned a host of unintended consequences that could have long-term impacts to public health.
The declaration’s two other writers, Dr. Martin Kulldorff of Harvard University and Professor Sunetra Gupta of Oxford University, also joined the governor during Thursday’s roundtable. Also joining was Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologist who had no formal experience in public health or infectious diseases when then-President Donald Trump tapped him last summer as a key pandemic adviser. Atlas later resigned.
“It’s obvious by now that these lockdowns and contact tracing and masks were not able to prevent a resurgence of the disease during the winter, and the problem is that the belief that the pandemic could be suppressed through these lockdowns,” said Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard.
At one time Florida was among the epicenters of the disease, prompting DeSantis a year ago to shutter businesses and call for social distancing. As the Florida economy hemorrhaged jobs, and under the strain of unemployment woes among hundreds of thousands of Floridians, he pushed to reopen the economy. He then moved to reopen schools.
Researchers have amassed troves of data about the spread of the coronavirus, which has infected more than 121 million worldwide and killed nearly 2.7 million. In the United States, the pandemic has been responsible for the deaths of at least 538,000 people, including more than 32,000 in Florida.
Some studies indicate that mask mandates and limits on group activities such as indoor dining can help slow the spread of the coronavirus, but less clear is why states with greater government-imposed restrictions have not always fared better than those without them.
California and Florida have drawn particular scrutiny because both states have had different approaches but with similar results, according to data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Despite California’s more cautious tack in reopening, its COVID-19 case rate was similar to that of Florida, The death rates for both states ranked near the middle. New York, which like California has been relatively stringent in restrictions, has had one of the worst records in deaths per capita after it was the nation’s early coronavirus epicenter.
Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a potential Democratic rival in the governor’s race, chided DeSantis for “elevating disinformation.”
In a tweet, Fried declared: “Masks save lives. Social distancing is crucial.”
“We don’t need a roundtable to know that expanding vaccine access is what must be done to save lives and jobs,” her tweet continued.
While DeSantis is gradually lowering the age criteria for access to coronavirus vaccines -- it now stands at 60 years old -- his critics are urging him to do so more quickly.
DeSantis said Florida has already vaccinated more than 3 million seniors, leading many other states.
“We’ve now vaccinated close to 2/3 of all seniors in Florida, of course, there’s no mandate,” the governor said.
Seminole County’s Emergency Management director Dr. Todd Husty has a different view on many of those issues, especially the use of masks.
“I’ve not been able to find experts who say they don’t work, as a matter of fact, quite the opposite,” he said. “We’re not close enough to the end point to be able to ask that question.”
Last week where Seminole county Commissioner Amy Lockart said the county needs to provide a better timeline for the mask mandate.
In a statement to News 6 Thursday, Lockhart said, “”I support wearing masks to combat COVID-19. Seminole County has a mandatory mask policy above and beyond Governor DeSantis’ state emergency order. Government mandates can’t last forever. County staff evaluated metrics to consider imposing the mask mandate; I want to know what metrics will be presented to us to consider ending the mandate. Our citizens deserve hope in light of the positive progress being made against COVID with vaccinations and better treatments. Our community deserves a transparent conversation so we can work together to develop a plan with appropriate metrics and guidelines for how we resume some normalcy when the time is right.”
Seminole county commissioners will discuss more at their meeting next week.