America is being forced yet again to learn the same, repetitive lesson of the pandemic: Fighting a raging, evolving virus with cynicism-laced politics rather than medical data only leads to the same result – a prolonged national nightmare.
School kids are the latest victims as Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott, the Republican governors of Florida and Texas, prioritize ideology over public health guidance. The governors are clashing with local officials who are resisting their orders banning school mask mandates, which appear to directly contradict traditional conservative resistance to distant, centralized power.
The Delta variant of Covid-19 is challenging the long-held belief that children don’t get hit hard by the coronavirus. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported last week that the US had an 84% increase in new Covid-19 cases among children from July 22 to 29, and Dr. Aileen Marty – an infectious disease expert at Florida International University – told CNN last week that children’s hospitals in the Sunshine State are “completely overwhelmed.”
As the Delta variant scythes across the country – especially less-vaccinated Republican states – there are increasing signs that leaders like DeSantis and Abbott have locked themselves into absolutist positions that they will be unable to water down without sustaining serious personal and political damage. But the price for their path is more sickness and death in crowded Covid-19 units among people they were elected to serve.
“For any other disease, you would not turn to your political leader for medical advice,” Dr. Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on Monday. “Politicians should really let the public health and physician leaders move forward on how to get this thing under control.”
More than 98% of the US population lives in counties now considered to have “substantial” or “high” Covid-19 transmission, according to CNN’s analysis of data published Monday by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But areas with high vaccination rates – more often than not run by Democrats – have so far done a better job in fighting the variant. Delta’s threat has also vexed governments overseas – and some in Europe, Asia and the Pacific have reimposed public health measures designed to slow the spread.
The irony is that by resisting similar measures, these Republicans have proved true warnings by federal health officials that the Delta variant represents a grave threat. Now the same dynamic may play out again, as they ignore CDC advice that all kids in schools should wear masks.
Both governors enjoy strong support in conservative media. DeSantis was recently celebrated by right-wing pundits for his handling of the pandemic and is seen as a possible alternative nominee in 2024 if ex-President Donald Trump decides not to run again. So their refusal to change course as conditions worsen only bolsters the impression that those who want a political future in the GOP must now demonstrate their contempt for common-sense health measures, just as surely as they must repeatedly prove their devotion to Trump.
Florida children’s hospitals are filling up
DeSantis is feuding with several school districts that are vowing to defy his ban on requiring masks for young kids who can’t yet get vaccinated but who are about to cram into classrooms for a new school year. Doubling down on his position that parents – most of whom have no medical expertise – should make the final decisions on masks, DeSantis threatened Monday to withhold the salaries of school officials defying his no-mask mandate.
This at a moment when pediatric units in his state are filling with young Covid patients.
“Our pediatricians, the nursing, the staff are exhausted, and the children are suffering, and it is absolutely devastating,” Marty told CNN’s Jim Sciutto on Friday. “Our children are very much affected. We’ve never seen numbers like this before.”
DeSantis is also appealing a court order in favor of Norwegian Cruise Line that struck down his prohibition on passengers being asked for proof they are vaccinated before stepping aboard.
In Texas, Abbott on Monday called on hospitals to delay elective medical procedures as Covid-19 spreads. Like DeSantis, he is facing resistance from several school boards over his own executive order banning mask mandates in class.
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky is, meanwhile, urging people to ignore the CDC guidance on masking in a new video packed with misinformation about the crisis. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia crowed over low vaccine rates in Alabama. As the Delta variant rages and national case numbers jumped from about 20,000 daily infections to 100,000 in a month, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said requiring masks in schools would have “negative consequences.”
These Republican politicians, and others, appear to be listening more to another possible 2024 GOP candidate: South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, who recently accused them of lacking “grit” over the pandemic.
The folly of GOP politicians using their power to countermand the best advice of public health experts was criticized most succinctly by one of their fellow Republicans – Sen. Bill Cassidy, a former doctor who represents Louisiana, a state where the Delta variant is exacting a heavy toll.
“Whenever politicians mess with public health, usually it doesn’t work out for public health, and ultimately it doesn’t work out for the politician, because public health suffers and the American people want public health,” Cassidy told CNN’s Dana Bash on “State of the Union” on Sunday.
“When it comes to local conditions, if my hospital’s full, vaccination rate is low and infection rate is going crazy, we should allow local officials to make those decisions best for their communities,” Cassidy said.
Trump seeks to airbrush his neglect of the pandemic
Trump has, meanwhile, launched a new effort to airbrush his own disastrous neglect of the crisis while in office.
In a weekend Fox News interview, he accused President Joe Biden – who has been pleading with the former President’s supporters to get the vaccine and save themselves – of worsening the pandemic. Trump and conservative media propagandists are also falsely claiming that the Delta variant is mostly being spread by undocumented migrants surging across the southern border.
A CNN analysis of CDC data suggests that 99.99% of the 160 million Americans who are fully vaccinated have not had severe breakthrough infections of Covid-19, making the idea that any politician would downplay vaccines even more heinous.
Over the nation’s history, many of the most difficult US political questions come down to the tension between the freedom of individuals and the steps needed to advance the collective good of society.
GOP Sen Rick Scott of Florida on Monday laid out the principled conservative position that choices about masks and vaccines must be up to individuals.
“When did we decide as American citizens that we are going to give government the ability to tell us that we have to wear a mask or have a shot?” Scott asked at a news conference. “That should not be their responsibility. Their responsibility is to give me good information and let me make the darn decision.”
However, Scott did say he would not object to private businesses declining to serve or employ people who refused to take such precautions.
The weakness of such a position in a pandemic, however, is that it satisfies political rather than epidemiological questions. This tension is constantly exploited by a virus that is oblivious to debate about the limits of government but has an advantage when political divides diminish the impact of public health measures.
‘Don’t get medical advice from the governor of Florida’
The Biden administration, while presiding over the full vaccination of half of American adults, is not blameless amid the political tumult.
The President made what appeared to be a premature early declaration of partial victory over the pandemic on July Fourth and was guilty of mixed messaging on vaccines and masks in recent days that deepened confusion. But, unlike Trump’s administration, Biden’s White House has been willing to change course based on the facts and to level with Americans about the real state of the pandemic – even if it risks damaging Biden’s political standing.
Many of the most prominent voices on the right have, however, clearly politicized the situation for their own personal gain. The result is raging infections: Texas and Florida are pacing the country with new infection counts and have overburdened hospitals. The Sunshine State recorded 134,751 new cases between August 2 and August 8, according to Johns Hopkins University figures. Texas recorded 86,123 over the same period, more than 20,000 cases above any other state.
But despite these dire figures, any reversal of course by the two governors now appears politically unpalatable since their goals seem to be to please conservative base voters who like seeing them take on Biden and the government’s top infectious diseases expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci.
In this, they are following the blueprint established by Trump when he was president and mocked masking, all but ignored the virus for long periods and pressed states to reopen before infections had subsided.
The hyper-politicization of one part of the pandemic – including vaccines that Trump did much to help develop – puzzles many medical experts.
Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a renowned heart specialist at George Washington University, said in an interview with CNN’s Jim Acosta on Sunday that if Florida were another country the federal government might consider banning travel from there to the US.
“Don’t get your medical advice from the governor of Florida,” Reiner said. “He needs to understand that he’s painted himself into a corner. People are dying in Florida. It’s going to get much worse.”
While several possible future Republican presidential candidates are seeking political gain even in the direst of circumstances, others in the GOP are calibrating their comments in the light of the deepening crisis.
Cassidy’s comment Sunday on CNN that “public health suffers” when politics gets involved followed an admission by Republican Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson that he regretted signing a bill barring mask mandates earlier this year. His change of heart came as cases of the Delta variant mounted in his state. GOP Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has called on Kentuckians to get vaccinated. And Jim Justice – the governor of West Virginia, one of the most conservative, pro-Trump bastions – said Monday that he didn’t want to mandate masks but might eventually have to since the state was running out of time.
“You’re taking a helluva risk if you’re not vaccinated,” Justice said, showing an unequivocal approach to the path out of the crisis that contrasts with the both-sides approach of Trump and other Republicans who are unwilling to spend their political capital to save their voters.
“I am telling you as your governor, as your friend, as the person that you really trusted: Right now, you need to put this as a No. 1 priority in your life and run to the fire and get vaccinated,” Justice said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story gave the incorrect name for the American Academy of Pediatrics.