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Every week, the White House sends out the Coronavirus Task Force’s “red zone” reports to each state, tailoring infection data and recommendations by region. Some governors publicly release these documents, but in Florida, journalists have had to fight for access. What’s happened with these reports is a good example of how the Sunshine State handles COVID-19 information. The state’s Department of Health collects a massive amount of information but holds some of it back. There’s a private competitor that calculates the infection rate in its own way. And the city of Miami has its own data hub. In the absence of consistent information, the state has yet to implement consistent COVID policy. So just why is the Florida government holding back state COVID data? And what changes are needed to improve its policy? To answer these questions, I spoke with Mary Ellen Klas, the Tallahassee bureau chief for the Miami Herald, on Wednesday’s episode of What Next. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: Does anyone ever ask Gov. Ron DeSantis: “Our numbers are rising. What are you doing about that?”
Mary Ellen Kas: People have asked him, as the numbers in the state have risen, Do you think it’s time to be more aggressive with enforcing mask mandates? Mayors in the state have put a coalition together asked for a statewide mask mandate. He has basically ignored the question and not answered why he disagrees with it. But his actions clearly do disagree with it.
Back in June, DeSantis announced phase 2 of Florida’s reopening, In most of the state, he said, businesses could return as normal, with only a few restrictions on capacity in places like movie theaters and bars. The governor said he was making these decisions based on data—but the state didn’t make the basis of that data readily available to the public.
He was saying the state’s numbers were on the decline and that meant that it was time to reopen the state. But in fact, the numbers were rising. Just days before his announcement date, they started to see numbers rise because it was a couple of weeks after the Easter holiday and people had gathered. So instead of telling the public that that’s what his numbers were showing, he said that things are on the decline. He has since denied that that was the case. He has indicated that they did everything the CDC had recommended. And then he took aim at the media and basically said, Florida has figured this out, and we’ve got this under control.
You’ve written really interestingly about how the governor is bolstering his decision-making here, because he said from the beginning he wanted to be data-driven. The data has been a little elusive, but he has relied on authorities, just not the experts that others have relied on.
In the last week of August, the governor decided to invite then–White House adviser Scott Atlas—
Right. He invited him to come in and talk about Florida’s approach. It was such a fascinating dialog because the governor would ask him questions like: Do masks work? Does closing everything down have any effect? Of course Atlas’ answer in most of the cases was: There’s no evidence that widespread mask usage works. It’s really important that we keep our focus on the most vulnerable. If we protect the most vulnerable, then we’re going to get out of this as soon as we have a vaccine and we’ll have established the result we have needed without doing too much damage to commerce. The governor then started to echo many of his statements.
Then DeSantis brought in more scientific firepower, specifically two professors behind the Great Barrington Declaration, a document expressing what they call “grave concerns about the damaging physical and mental health impacts of the prevailing COVID-19 policies.” Instead of a lockdown, they recommend an approach they call “Focused Protection.”
The “focus” was on keeping people who are vulnerable or had preexisting conditions from having any exposure to the vaccine, to the virus, and everybody else should just go about their business and just protect that significant group of people.
The argument here was that if you do this, the population will build up herd immunity. This declaration was sponsored by the American Institute for Economic Research—which is not exactly the American Medical Association.
That’s right. And one of the important details they failed to talk about is that, absent a vaccine, herd immunity is going to mean that 60 percent of the population has to be infected. In Florida, that would mean that the 17,000 lives that had already been lost by the point the governor put this panel together—would we need to see three times as many people die? They conveniently didn’t talk about that angle. And yet the governor embraced this approach and put a lot of attention and focus on protecting people in assisted living facilities and nursing homes.
I wonder a little bit, when you look at the ways the Trump administration is playing fast and loose with the numbers, whether that prevents some kind of public reckoning with what DeSantis is doing.
I think that by synthesizing what the governor was doing in one of our recent stories, people were able to see that, yes, he’s promoting a strategy that he doesn’t have the tools to promote, so it does lay bare the failed logic of this approach. But we were left with no answers. I just don’t think the governor sees his role as one of recommending how people should behave. But what he does see as his role is preventing government from telling people what’s safe.
Why does he see government recommendations as something to be avoided rather than something that might actually be helpful for a jurisdiction? I wonder if some mayors have gone to him and said, actually, we could use your guidance here.
Yes. In fact, he’s heard from a bipartisan group of mayors urging him to come out with a statewide strategy, public health messaging that tells people what they need to do to be safe. He has not seen that as his role at all, In fact, the Department of Health has done very little broad public information messaging. Only reluctantly, after about three or four months in, did it start putting together a campaign to tell people how to be safe. Since then, that has really disappeared as well. I think DeSantis sees government as an impediment to people and not a way to help people.