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Ron DeSantis was the last hope of a Covid reckoning

Ron DeSantis's greatest national legacy might be on Covid policy. Credit: Getty

January 22, 2024 - 4:50pm

I first spoke with Ron DeSantis, who yesterday dropped out of the US presidential race, when he cold-called me on a Sunday afternoon in September 2020. An unidentified number showed up on my phone from Florida, and one of his aides then asked if I would be willing to speak with the Governor. We spoke for over two hours: on Covid-19 risk factors, on immunity, on the harms of lockdowns, and on the safety of opening schools. I came away from that conversation impressed by DeSantis’s command of the scientific literature: though not a scientist, he could cogently discuss the footnotes. 

The next day, the Governor invited me to a policy roundtable where he led a public discussion on Covid policy between me and fellow academics: the Nobel Prize-winning Stanford scientist Michael Levitt and the Harvard epidemiologist Martin Kulldorff. DeSantis then announced that he was lifting all remaining lockdown policies in Florida and would not institute them again. The following year he granted me an interview, in which he described the pressure to lock down Florida in March 2020 by figures such as White House Covid Task Force Coordinator Deborah Birx. The Governor expressed regret —an act remarkably rare for politicians — at agreeing to close the state in the first place, and vowed to put in place reforms which would make lockdowns a thing of the past. 

In autumn 2020, as California Governor Gavin Newsom kept pupils out of school, DeSantis ordered an in-person option for every child in Florida. Following the lack of high-quality randomised evidence suggesting community masking can effectively prevent Covid, DeSantis prohibited mask mandates in the state. 

In late 2020, when vaccines first became available, following evidence that older people were more than a thousand times more likely than teenagers to die from Covid infection and that the vaccine could reduce that risk, the Governor prioritised older people for vaccination. He did this at a time when public health authorities waffled on the topic, wondering whether to prioritise minorities and young healthcare workers instead. 

In 2021, following evidence that vaccination did not prevent Covid transmission and so did not provide a public benefit to others besides the recipient, DeSantis rejected the coercive idea of vaccine mandates and passports. At a time when hospitals were preventing families from visiting with dying relatives, he enacted a humanitarian law guaranteeing visitation rights.

What was the result of these policies? Since the beginning of the pandemic, Florida has had lower all-cause excess deaths, after adjusting for its older population, than California. DeSantis’s state protected human life better than locked-down California did, and it had better economic outcomes, including far lower unemployment and better educational outcomes for its school kids.

One reason for the Republican reluctance to revisit the Covid era might be that many voters feel conflicted over their early support for lockdowns. They are thus loath to give DeSantis sufficient credit for his pandemic accomplishments. In this reading Trump, savvy operator that he is, has not proposed any honest evaluation of his Covid policies to avoid picking a scab that might make him — and much of the Republican electorate — look bad.

It seems altogether unlikely that the US will have an honest inquiry into the Covid policy disaster. One can simply compare the low all-cause excess deaths that Sweden achieved without lockdowns against the shockingly high excess deaths in the United States to see the need for one. Unfortunately, the US cannot look to the UK for a good example given the whitewash which took place at the latter’s Covid inquiry. That was led by people who seem to sincerely believe, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the disease would have disappeared had Boris Johnson imposed a Chinese-style lockdown in February 2020.  

There are two distinct and contradictory visions of the future now that DeSantis is gone from the presidential race. According to the pessimistic one, the lesson of DeSantis losing the Republican primary race is that Americans will never have an honest inquiry over the Covid policy fiasco. The more optimistic reading is that there may be one, but only if we can muster the grace to have it focus on providing lessons for future policy and not on political point-scoring. I’ll keep working towards the latter vision. But if it is the former, then lockdowns are a permanent fixture in the public health toolbox, and the population should plan accordingly for them to inevitably return.


Jay Bhattacharya is a professor at Stanford University Medical School, a physician, epidemiologist, health economist, and public health policy expert focusing on infectious diseases and vulnerable populations.

DrJBhattacharya

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
6 months ago

There will never be a reckoning. Because it will not be allowed to happen. The CDC is still pushing Covid boosters against all reason, including for young children. Fauci is pocketing big bucks on the lecture circuit and Congress engages in its usual kabuki theater that leads to nothing.
From what I can tell, as this article suggests, same song in the UK. The people in charge will never admit to being wrong or misjudging events or even being overzealous. Their DNA won’t allow it. They’ll pivot to the next shiny object while giving the appearance of inquiry to mollify the loudest voices. And that’s it. I would love to be proven wrong, but it’s not likely in this case.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

Can you really compare Florida with California when adjusting for age? What if Florida was able to take a more restrained approach because the older population moderated their own behaviour given the much higher risk?
Can you compare economic and educational outcomes when their economies and living circumstances are entirely different?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

You might be right. On the other hand, I think it’s hard to argue that Florida’s approach was some kind of disaster. IMO Covid outcomes were largely driven by population density, demographics and overall health of a population. Vaccines were beneficial for the elderly and infirm. Lockdowns did nothing but impoverish people and punish students and young adults.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Re Veenbaas’ comprehensive (and mostly-accurate) comment: Surely what’s gradually becoming biggest issue is the sad fact {which he didn’t include} that, in the long run, due to gradual systemic clotting from most vaccines vs CoVid, on-average they hurt and even kill more than they help, even for the elderly and infirm.

This factor overshadows his rightful condemnation of the harms caused by the lockdowns … which, in-effect, forced a near-equalization of the daily activities of the elderly and infirm with those of all other main sub-populations. {– thus, also settling the previous commenter’s insightful objection. } [ See “*” ] And so,

in sad irony, the lockdowns enabled the age-adjusted analyses to be quite accurate, in showing the above-mentioned average harm of current vaccinations: with their formulas’ adjuvants including aluminum ( causing single-fibril neuronal-tangling [i.e. dementia] ) and PEG ( common antifreeze, much more hepato-toxic when injected ) ; and, even worse, with every single RNA CoViD vaccine sample’s analysis revealing the inclusion of coronavirus DNA, thereby making the vaccinated organism’s [the human’s] cells continue manufacturing spike proteins which of-course eventually cause system-wide clotting which of-course eventually shuts down sections of multiple organs and then the whole organism. [ Sources available, via RepayingKindness at grnall dot com ]

——–

*: From one article (– of a liberal source, at that –) , in 2023 April, re the results, vs lockdowns & vaccines, after age-adjustment of FL’s CoViD stats:

<< .. With an adjustment to show what it would look like if each state had the same age and health profile as the United States as a whole, Florida’s death rate jumped [[up]] to 12th lowest, while California’s fell to 36th. That calculation included the proportion of each state’s residents over age 65 and under age 20, obesity and smoking rates and prevalence of diseases including asthma, cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

For some states, the adjustment made little difference. [Examples] … … For others, the difference was substantial. West Virginia, which had the country’s highest actual death rate, had the 14th lowest when the figures were adjusted to account for its older and unhealthier population. >>

— from https://www.seattletimes.com/nation-world/why-major-study-argues-floridas-covid-death-rate-compares-favorably-to-californias/

\\

Andrew Buckley
Andrew Buckley
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

And your “differences”, to me, make the case for variety and choice in any future decisions on what to do in a pandemic. Just a bit different to the WHO ope size fits all approach.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  UnHerd Reader

I suppose it’s always possible to do something incredibly stupid (like lockdown) and then question the counterfactual which can never 100% be proven. But the comparison between two sunshine states with large populations and radically different policy choices is as close as we can get to a fair comparison.
And it overwhelmingly shows that lockdowns were the disaster we always knew they would be.

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago

A subject that Unherd has not covered at all is the WHO pandemic treaty which continues to move toward ratification. From my limited understanding, that treaty would place pandemic response authority in the hands of the WHO, and you can bet they’re in favor of lockdowns.
Why isn’t Unherd covering that topic at all?

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  J Bryant

The WHO is a paper tiger. If Trump is re-elected the US will likely withdrawal again. Any sovereign nation can wave the middle finger at ignore proclamations from the WHO.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

This was your answer when I last mentioned the WHO treaty. The WHO is only a paper tiger if you are not a cowardly politician. In the future pandemic no politician will dare to react on his own iniative for fear of being blamed later. So, here comes the WHO charging over the hill. How could you be blamed if everyone was signed up to the same treaty?

J Bryant
J Bryant
6 months ago

That’s exactly my fear.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
6 months ago

Well, it is those same national politicians who would have signed up to the Treaty! This sounds to be like an irritation, not anything like on a par with a supposedly liberal British prime minister removing civil liberties for over 2 years

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
6 months ago

I notice the ever-reliable WHO has published estimates by ‘experts’ (Bill Gates?) that mass vaccination was a resounding success. In the UK apparently it saved nearly half a million lives ( are these the same experts who predicted millions of deaths without ‘tough measures ‘ I wonder ?).
But current excess deaths in the UK are steadily eating away at even that number.

Meanwhile Mr Vaccine promises us shots for everything -the mind boggles.

But the truth is seeping out bit by bit and no doubt they’re really hoping that we’ll all gradually accept that we’ve been had but will be too busy worrying about keeping the lights on and too exhausted to kick up a fuss.

Mrs R
Mrs R
6 months ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

The fact that they know they can say any old rubbish and still be taken seriously by the MSM as if they are the infallible medical gods of the world is extremely worrying. God help us if the pandemic treaty goes forward for we will be herded into accepting rushed out, experimental vaccines and medications in the event of a pandemic – one is already being talked up – like so much cattle

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
6 months ago

There is zero prospect of an independent assessment of lockdown here in the UK. Our vast Faux Inquiry is evidently as pro lockdown as it is a legal money guzzling virus. Every political party, the NHS and all public health organisations, the unions and the BBC and media ALL conspired to bully and cajole the nation into the catastrophe of lockdown. Any judgement to the contrary is just too damaging for them. The truth will stay buried .till the next time.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

Quite right. The UK enquiry is a sham and political theatre rather than an honest scientific examination of the effects of lockdown compared to alternative approaches. As you say a whole public class is determined to show there was nothing wrong with lockdown apart from Johnson not embracing it quickly enough and dithering. It is no more than an insult to the public and the scientific approach. It should never have got bogged down in emails and politics but have followed the route suggested by the author avoiding all post hoc political point scoring.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
6 months ago
Reply to  Walter Marvell

The UK inquiry is currently proving highly awkward for the SNP, so it’s not all bad news.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago

I think punishing politicians who botched the Covid response is a waste of time. We need to move forward and develop a rationale strategy for future pandemics.

Thor Albro
Thor Albro
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

We had a “rationale strategy” (USA) based on a century of study by innumerable epidemiologists since the Spanish Flu of 1916. The standard was to NOT lock-down and to keep society working, protect the vulnerable, and masking was not that important. The “science” was ignored, as Battacharya has tried to point out, but was censored.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I agree. Though it might be satisfying for people to admit that they were wrong, it would be more useful if they demonstrated it by their actions, rather than forcing any kind of explicit declaration of fault. Pushing “you were wrong” instead of “what can we do better next time” is just more likely to fail, regardless of the situation.

Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The problem is that all too many politicians and their MSM and bureaucratic supporters are only interested in how they can stick it to their political opponents or avoid any blame falling on themselves. They are not interested in the truth just what serves their purposes.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
6 months ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Then our job as citizens is to vote out these clowns.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

The WHO has developed one for us.

laurence scaduto
laurence scaduto
6 months ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

I agree with Jim V.
We’re falling behind in so many important projects to improve and secure our lives and cultures. We have a lot of work to do. Pointing fingers doesn’t help; in fact, it makes it harder to move forward.

Caty Gonzales
Caty Gonzales
6 months ago

It is borderline scandalous that DeSantis is not going to be the nominee (barring any act of God).

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago
Reply to  Caty Gonzales

He did himself no favours at all with his terrible campaigning. One wonders how he ever got to be Governor of Florida.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

You make a good point about DeSantis and COVID. Both the current and previous president have shown little scientific curiosity about the subject or for the “solutions”, so long as you set aside political science. Florida did a pretty good job with this, and DeSantis deserves some credit for his leadership on the matter.

N T
N T
6 months ago

it was desantis’ handling of the pandemic that thrust him onto the stage, and into the fast-lane for the nomination. he fumbled the ball.
there will be further hearings on covid, but the result will be the same: the topic is political, and so will be argued about as if either team has answers.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
6 months ago

The reason there are such distinct and contradictory visions of the future in general stems from the fact that almost no one seems to be able to avoid applying any principle in two distinct and contradictory ways, anymore.
While DeSantis’ decisions during Covid were generally good, like so many others he lacks consistency – standing up for bodily autonomy in the face of coercive vaccine mandates while failing to extend this principle to abortion bans, which he so vehemently supports.
My hopes will be saved for those who are more truly committed to fundamental rights – wherever they may be.

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
6 months ago

How does it serve bodily self determination to kill an unborn child who has no possibility to say otherwise ? That’s just cruel. And kind of stupid. Nature has a way to regulate this kind of foolishness all by itself: people with high birthrates prevail and people with low birthrates decline. Abortion is no different than a slowed down genocide.

Mustard Clementine
Mustard Clementine
6 months ago
Reply to  Chris Maille

Much like donating a kidney to a relative who needs one can be a wonderful thing to do – it is your choice to do so, even though it can make the difference as to whether they live or die. That it can be lifesaving does not mean anyone should be forced to do it. There should be no more obligation for me to give a potential relative the use of my uterus than there is for me to give a more fully alive relative my kidney.

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
6 months ago

No fault power over life and death — even life you’ve created. Because that life must be important to you; hopefully, yours is to someone….

Chris Maille
Chris Maille
5 months ago

You are confusing who is making the sacrifice: It’s not the woman who carries a child, but the unborn child who is forced to give its life. So tell me, to stay consistent within your argument, why should the unborn child be obliged to die just so the mother doesn’t have to accept responsibility ?

Ardath Blauvelt
Ardath Blauvelt
6 months ago

Because, of course, a “fetus” has no rights, right?

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
5 months ago

To address Clementine’s tangent: What about Bodily Autonomy for the victims, over 1 million per year worldwide, murdered by abortion?
( — well over half of whom, BTW, are female, even if <9mo old )

Colorado UnHerd
Colorado UnHerd
6 months ago

Yep. RFK, Jr. is the remaining American presidential candidate most likely to properly weigh collateral damages of the lockdown/mandate era and avoid a repeat. But of course he has been disparaged and dismissed as “anti-vax” and a conspiracy theorist by the establishment, including mainstream media.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

Disparaging and dismissing RFK Jr on those grounds is like taking candy from a baby.

Simon Templar
Simon Templar
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Have you ever actually watched video of any people who tried to debate RFK? He ran rings round them. Please. The MSM is wholly bought and paid for by the censorship industrial complex. They want to take your possessions and keep you in a 15-minute city. You want that? Have another booster.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  Simon Templar

Wait now: he didn’t run rings around Peter Hotez in that 3-hour debate on the Joe Rogan podcast…
…of course that was because Hotez was too chicken to debate him!

Robert Pruger
Robert Pruger
6 months ago

I have the highest regard for Dr. Bhattacharya. His fight during Covid hysteria for common sense public policy grounded in science. An immense amount of grace under pressure from Jay. Similarly Gov. DeSantis exhibited courageous leadership before, during and after Covid. But I have to throw the challenge flag.
Trump made regrettable calls on this. And he certainly won’t champion an inquiry on the campaign trail. But he knows the harm the CDC and NHI caused and will, once in office, wan to clean out the rot. New heads at NHI and CDC will do the job without making it a White House task. Dr. Jay are you interested?

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
6 months ago
Reply to  Robert Pruger

Especially if Vivek is given a prominent place in the administration. My bet is the timing of DeSantis’ withdrawal and his endorsement will have earned him a spot too, so I am much less pessimistic than Bhattacharya (with all the regard I have for him too).

Gerry Quinn
Gerry Quinn
6 months ago

I see there is no mention on the page of Dr. Joseph Ladapo, whom DeSantis appointed as Florida’s Surgeon General. While his general views may be sound, it doesn’t seem like he is well equipped to defend them scientifically, and a number of his statements appear more than dubious.

Martin M
Martin M
6 months ago

DeSantis dropped out of the race for reasons unconnected with COVID. After all, COVID as an issue is rapidly disappearing in the rear-view mirror.

Barry Murphy
Barry Murphy
6 months ago
Reply to  Martin M

Those of us who suffered under lockdowns and were oppsoed to them in principle, as well as those of us who were treated like dirt for not getting “vaccinated”, will never forget Covid.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
6 months ago

If Trump wins, he should give de Santis the health portfolio.

Allison Barrows
Allison Barrows
6 months ago

Dr, Bhattacharya will forever have my gratitude and admiration for his bravery throughout the entire Covid ordeal. What he had to endure in trying to bring common sense to the response is unforgivable.

Dr. B, it was largely because of you and Governor DeSantis that my husband and I moved from New England to Southwest Florida in January 2021. The residents of our former town are still wearing masks!

Damon Hager
Damon Hager
6 months ago

Much as I like Trump, I agree that DeSantis deserves great credit for standing up to the lockdown loons. Conversely, I don’t think intellectual dishonesty about reevaluating the hysteria is confined to the Republican establishment.
The entire West (including the public and, especially, the media) had a collective fit of cowardice and irrationality over the WuFlu. They don’t want to be reminded, but they should be – if only for the sake of the children whose lives they blighted.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
6 months ago

I disagree with the title and conclusion of this analysis…which may be based on the assumption that Kennedy, Jr. is not a contender. That is not to say I think Kennedy is sure to be one…but I do hold on to Hope. There is an unfairly steep amount of work that RFK, Jr. must pay for and enact that neither established party’s leading contenders must …but he continues to plod through the necessary steps…maintaining a positive attitude and refraining from feeling sorry for himself and thereby becoming embittered. He disciplines himself, daily, to avoid negativities toward Biden (a long-time family friend) and Trump, who he generously gives credit to for a number of policies Kennedy feels were justified.
I think RFK, Jr. is uniquely best qualified to be able to deal, in the aftermath of a botched pandemic response, with the reckoning of the mess, having litigated so many of the organizations implicated, thereby understanding them and those involved in a way that no one else does.
That said, if not for RFK, Jr.’s campaign, I would agree with Bhattacharya’s analysis of the loss of DeSantis’ presence in the 2024 presidential campaign.

Barry Murphy
Barry Murphy
6 months ago

Excellent article. So sad to see Ron de Santis drop out of the presidential race. The last sentence in the article about lockdowns possibly being inevitable in the future sent shivers down my spine!