South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday)

SECRECY AND SPIN

How Florida’s governor misled the public on the pandemic

- By Mario Ariza, David Fleshler and Cindy Krischer Goodman

Throughout the COVID19 crisis in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administra­tion engaged in a pattern of spin and concealmen­t that misled the public on the gravest health threat the state has ever faced, a South

Florida Sun Sentinel investigat­ion has found.

DeSantis, who owes his job to early support from President Donald Trump, imposed an approach in line with the views of the president and his powerful base of supporters. The administra­tion suppressed unfavorabl­e facts, dispensed dangerous misinforma­tion, dismissed public health profession­als, and promoted the views of scientific dissenters who supported the governor’s approach to the disease.

The De Santis administra­tion’s approach to managing COVID-19 informatio­n carries costs. It supports a climate in which people proudly disdain masks, engage in dangerous group activities that could spread the disease, and brush aside informatio­n that conflicts with their political views. With partygoers packing Florida bars and holiday travelers filling hotels and guest rooms, the state faces a few difficult months before the possible relief of vaccines.

These findings are based on interviews with more than 50 people, including scientists, doctors, political leaders, employees of the state health department, and other state officials, as well as more than 4,000 pages of documents:

The Florida Department of Health’s county-level spokes people were ordered in September to stop issuing

public statements about C OVID -19 until after the Nov. 3 election.

The DeSantis administra­tion refused to reveal details about the first suspected cases in Florida, then denied the virus was spreading from person to person — despite mounting evidence that it was.

State officials withheld informatio­n about infections in schools, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes, relenting only under pressure or legal action from family members, advocacy groups and journalist­s.

The DeSantis administra­tion brushed aside scientists and doctors who advocated convention­al approaches to fighting the virus, preferring scientists on the fringes who backed the governor’ s positions.

The governor’ s spokesman regularly takes to Twitter to spread misinforma­tion about the disease, including the false claim that COVID was less deadly than the flu.

Theg overnor highlighte­d statistics that would paint the rosiest picture possible and attempted to cast doubt on the validity of Florida’s rising death toll.

“The governor is a smart, educated guy,” said Thomas Unnasch, co-directorof the Center for Global Health and Infectious Disease Research at the University of South Florida in Tampa. “But he also is a politicall­y savvy guy. He is encouragin­g people who are of the opinion that the virus is not as severe and profound as others say it is and putting politics before science.”

DeSantis has a difficult balance to strike, having to weigh the need to fight the disease against the profound harm to society of shutting down parts of the state’ s economy.

DeSantis would not be interviewe­d for this article, but on Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight on Dec .2, he called the media’ s criticism of his approach “all political .”

Fred Piccolo Jr., the governor’s spokesman, said DeSantis has not been trying to spin anything, just stick with a consistent, facts-based message that would accomplish the most in saving lives.

“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic,” he said. “Wash hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask, etc. But he’s also adapted to the data as it becomes available.”

“He acted quickly to save thousands of nursing home residents. He knew of drugs in the pipeline and was ready to act for Florida when he knew they were coming online. He’s been consistent even as the pandemic has become political .”

Piccolo didnot respondto questions on why the administra­tion shut out mainstream scientists, or denied that person-to-person spread was taking place or resisted the release of COVID informatio­n on nursing homes, schools and prisons.

With election, state bans COVID-19 news

In the last week of September, as the presidenti­al election neared, word went out to the state employees who served as county-level spokespeop­le for the Florida Department of Health: Talk about anything but COVID-19.

Don’t issue news releases or write social media posts about COVID, theywere told, according to three health department county spokespeop­le who asked not to be identified. Instead, talk about flu shots, hearing-loss screenings — anything but the virus.

“It is all part of the top- down control of messaging from the governor’s office,” said a senior official in the health department.

The order came from Alberto Moscoso, communicat­ions director for the state health department. It’s unclear who told Moscoso to issue the order. He left the department on Nov. 6 and declined comment for this report.

During the presidenti­al election campaign, Trump quipped that he would “fire” DeSantis if he lost Florida. DeSantis worked hard to help him win the state’s 29 electoral votes, praising Trump at news conference­s and attending the president’s rallies where the maskless governor was photograph­ed high-fiving the crowd.

The attempt to deflect attention from negative news is called “blue sky” messaging, and that’s how it was described to local health representa­tives, according to three health department spokespeop­le.

“Nothing gets approved without it passing through the governor’ s office ,” said one county health department spokespers­on. “If it’s not blue sky, then it’s held up or we’re told to hold off and it never gets approved.”

On Sept. 24, after months of Facebook and Twitter posts about COVID-19 safety, the health department stopped posting anything on social media about the disease, a blackout that lasted through November. The department did, however, continue torun prepaid COVID public health ads

on Facebook urging hand washing, masks and social distancing.

In the week before Election Day, as case counts climbed, the health department posted on Twitter and Facebook about flu vaccinatio­ns, the prevention of carbon monoxide poisoning and lead poisoning detection. Nothing about COVID19.

Piccolo, the governor’ s spokesman, def ended the changes in Florida’s pandemic health messaging in the run-up to the election and beyond.

“As Pew Research showed, the messaging on prevention and

C OVID -19 has reached saturation ,” Piccolo said. “People are doing all they can to mitigate risk.”

That nationwide poll, however, made no mention of COVID prevention messaging, instead asking respondent­s only if they’d worn a mask in the past month.

Dr. Dominique Brossard, chairwoman of the Department of Life Sciences Communicat­ion at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says that inconsiste­nt messaging can have real-world impacts on human health.

“Clear, consistent and transparen­t messaging,” she said. “If you don’t do that then people won’t trust you about behavior change.”

A pattern of secrecy from the first days of the pandemic

The administra­tion’s tight control of messaging goes back to the earliest days of the pandemic and continued as the disease penetrated every part of the state.

In February, as Floridians wondered whether this mysterious illness had arrived, state officials said no one had tested positive

but wouldn’t say how many people they were monitoring or testing for the virus. They defended their refusal by citing a state law on patient privacy, although legal experts said the epidemic met the threshold for the informatio­n to be made public. At the time, other states were giving out the informatio­n.

In early March, the reluctance to acknowledg­e the extent of the threat included the crucial issue of whether Florida was experienci­ng “community spread.” That’s the person-to-person transmissi­on of the disease, rather than its isolated appearance in a few people who contracted the virus elsewhere, such as a cruise ship or a trip abroad. Community spread would elevate COVID-19 froma concern to a crisis, raising the prospect of shutting down parts of the economy.

A March 8 briefing package for the governor from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention delivered the bad news: Florida had “limited community transmissi­on .” In other words: community spread.

But at a news conference the next day, despite the CDC’s alert, DeSantis denied the existence of community spread, saying that a single cluster of cases at Port Everglades wasn’ t sufficient to meet the criteria.

The conflict between the governor’s assessment and that of the federal government became public at a March 10 briefing by the White House Coronaviru­s Task Force, when Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top federal expert on infectious diseases, confirmed that Florida was among four states undergoing community spread.

DeSantis finally acknowledg­ed this fact at a news conference on

March14, as the number of Florida cases reached 77.

As the disease spread through Florida, state agencies refused to release informatio­n about how many people were sick at individual nursing homes, prisons, hospitals or schools.

Eventually, under pressure from families, local officials, advocacy groups and news organizati­ons, the De Santis administra­tion relented. Florida now produces regular reports on the extent of the disease in nursing homes, prisons, hospitals and schools.

“The media and public should not have to rely on engaging attorneys to get this informatio­n,” said Mark Caramanica, an attorney for Florida media organizati­ons .“The Department of Health should be as proactive as they can about giving out the data and allowing people to make informed choices.”

Excluding the experts

Florida’s wealth of university-affiliated experts on infectious diseases have largely watched fromthe sidelines as the governor consulted coronaviru­s advisers whowould back his policies.

“We have over 200 affiliated faculty within this institute,” said Dr. Glenn Morris, director of the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute. “This is what we do for a living. Yet the state has not taken full advantage of that expertise.”

The DeSantis administra­tion’s failure to rely on the institute — establishe­d by the state Legislatur­e in 2006 to address disease threats to Florida — is emblematic of its decision to shut out mainstream scientists in favor of a select group

who would confirm the less-restrictiv­e COVID policies favored by many Republican­s.

“Unfortunat­ely, they’re not drawing on the best science, they’ re drawing on political needs ,” Morris said. “In many ways, it’s a tragedy.”

Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees, who runs the Florida Department of Health, initially took steps toward assembling what scientists hoped would be a robust statewide COVID-19 task force. But after convening a single meeting in early March, he let the initiative fizzle.

“At first, he reached out to me to form a group that can advise us through the pandemic,” said Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert at Florida Internatio­nal University who advised MiamiDade Mayor C ar los Gimenez .“And I went and found fantastic people in Florida. And the next week we had a teleconfer­ence, and we started going through the steps and the things we needed to do to move this forward.”

But then Rivkees announced therewould be no more meetings.

“At the end of the conference, he said, ‘This is the only one we’re going to have. We don’t want anything getting out in public.’ At that point I thought tomyself: we are on our own,” Marty said.

The surgeon general himself largely disappeare­d from public view after a news conference in April, where he said social distancing practices could be necessary for another year — a statement at odds with DeSantis’ optimistic message on the disease.

Rivkees did not respond to a request for an interview.

“Immediatel­y after he finished saying that, he was pulled off of the dais by the governor’s team. Andwe didn’t hear fromor see Dr. Rivkees for weeks and weeks after that ,” said state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith, an Orlando Democrat who has been critical of the governor’ s C OVID policies .“That leaves the public with the perception that our state surgeon general is being muzzled by the governor.”

Let’s find someone who agrees with us

In place of Florida scientists, the governor called on a group of experts and quasi-experts who would tell him what hewanted to hear.

Among them was Dr. Scott Atlas, a radiologis­t and senior fellow at Stanford University’ s conservati­ve Hoover Institutio­n, who served as Trump’s coronaviru­s adviser despite having a medical specialty that did not involve infectious disease. Atlas won Trump’s favor with optimistic statements on the pandemic, skepticism of masks, advice to limit testing and promotion of an approach that involved reopening the economy.

At the end of August, DeSantis invited Atlas on a tour of Florida. The two appeared at a series of news conference­s, where DeSantis rattled off favorable statistics on the fight against the disease and Atlas backed the governor’s less-restrictiv­e approach.

But Atlas’ statements have been widely panned by other scientists and drew a rebuke last month from the Stanford Faculty Senate, which adopted a resolution to “strongly condemn” him for promoting a view on COVID-19 that “contradict­s medical science.” Atlas responded that he was “disappoint­ed” in the faculty resolution, saying, “My views in favor of the careful protection of our nation’s most vulnerable while safely re-opening society are far from contrary to science.”

DeSantis’ decision to bring Atlas to Florida dismayed outside experts and at least one top state official. “Dr. Atlas is a wonderful radiologis­t,” said a senior DeSantis administra­tion official who wanted to remain anonymous .“If I need some film read, I’ll go to him.”

In late September, DeSantis assembled a televised public health roundtable of scientists from Harvard and Stanford who backed his policies. In the two-hour discussion, the governor played the role of an attorney asking friendly witnesses for the expected answers.

DeSantis: “Dr. Kulldorff, do you think, froma public health perspectiv­e, having an open, functionin­g society, with protection­s for the folks that are specifical­ly vulnerable to this disease, do you think that’s the best approach?”

Martin Kulldorff, a professor of medicine at Harvard: “That’s the right approach, certainly.”

Public health experts called the event more of a public relations exercise than a public health discussion.

“Calling people in from out of state to be experts who are of your same mindset, you are controllin­g the narrative, and it’s politics not science,” said Dr. Jay Wolfson, senior associate dean of the University of South Florida’ s M ors a ni College of Medicine. “Florida is one of the top states in the nation for expertise to draw on. Unfortunat­ely, at the state level, I’m afraid we are not being heard, and evidence-based data is not being used as far decisions being made.” less deadly than the flu and masks are only marginally effective. Here are some examples: Tweet: Claimed the COVID-19 plans of the Florida Democratic Party and Joe Biden meant “locking people in their houses even though it’s less deadly than the flu, talk down a vaccine, force you to put something on your body, yank kids from school, & cower in fear. Oh& tank the economy.”

Facts: Although researcher­s have yet to establish the exact COVID death rate, there’s broad agreement it’s at least several times more lethal than the common seasonal flu. On average, the flu has killed between 10,000 to 60,000 Americans every year since 2010. So far this year, COVID has killed more than 272,000, according to dashboard run by Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re talking over 200K,” said Jill Roberts, associate professor at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, after reviewing Piccolo’s tweets. “How could you possibly try to sell that message? That’s ridiculous. The data speaks for itself.”

Tweet: Urging the need to acknowledg­e progress in the fight, on Oct .13, Piccolo tweeted “we had one Covid death in Florida yesterday..yes you read that right. One.”

Facts: On the day he referred to, the state reported 47 deaths. But either way, Piccolo would have had no way of knowing how manypeople actually died fromthe disease that day, since the fatality reports can takeweeks or months to be recorded.

Tweet: Piccolo retweeted an observatio­n by Dr. James Todaro, an ophthalmol­ogist who gained attention for promoting Trump’s favored COVID-19 policies, that read “Wearing a mask outdoors is more ludicrous than wearing a seat belt in a car showroom.”

Facts: Experts say masks should be worn outside if it’s not possible to maintain a safe distance from people you aren’t normally near. “Iwould say that tweet is dangerous,” said Michael Mina, assistant professor of epidemiolo­gy at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Masks cut risk. I would call that a false tweet.”

Asked about the claim the disease was less deadly than the flu, Piccolo said, “I should have said kids rather than people.”

Regarding the incorrect report of a single death one day, he said, “At the time of publicatio­n, there was one death that day. Those numbers do change, but it is more accurate than the often used ‘deaths on date reported’ that headlines love to use.”

On masks, he said, “The governor has always advocated wearing a mask, he just does not believe in mandates.”

Although the governor advocated masks early in the pandemic, his more recent statements have focused on his belief that masks should be voluntary and man dates aren’t effective. Florida is one of 13 states without a mask mandate.

At a hospital in The Villages, the vast retirement community northwest of Orlando, DeSantis began an Aug. 31 news conference with a parade of upbeat statistics about the course of the disease since its July peak.

“Since that time, we’ve had really positive trends,” he said. “So, for example, today we can report in Florida that the number of COVID-positive patients that are currently hospitaliz­ed is down nearly 60% statewide from our July peak.”

“There’s been a lot of positive movement over the last four to six weeks,” he said. “And we want to obviously see that continue.”

Such recitation­s of upbeat news are familiar to anyone who has watched the governor’s news

conference­s. Seeking to put the best face on the pandemic, hehighligh­ts the most favorable data points available in the daily blizzard of statistics on new cases, hospitaliz­ations and deaths.

He haspointed to declines in the positivity rate. Or declines in the daily count of new cases. Or a reduced number of hospitaliz­ations. Or the drop in the age of the average person infected, since COVID-19 tends to cause less harm to younger people. Or athismost recent newsconfer­enceonNov. 30, the coming vaccines.

“He has these press conference­s where he says how great everything is,” Miami Beach Mayor Dan Gelber said. “It’s more like an Amway meeting than an emergency management meeting. This constant refrain ofhowwell everyone is doing. It’s so the wrong approach.”

The governor also questioned the validity of his administra­tion’s own fatality numbers, claiming they might have been exaggerate­d. After a motorcycle crash death was initially classified as a COVID-19 fatality, DeSantis seized on it as evidence that the death countmay be inflated.

The Florida Department ofHealthon­Oct. 21 ordered a review of all deaths, citing concerns about accuracy and the time-lag that led some COVID-19 deaths to go unreported to the state for more than two months.

“We had the opportunit­y to review death certificat­es for some of Florida’s recent

COVID-19 deaths,” tweeted Piccolo, thegoverno­r’s press secretary. “And we can tell you definitive­ly that Florida is counting deaths that were not directly caused by

COVID-19.”

Many experts who have studied epidemics say the opposite is more likely true, and Florida’s current official death toll of more than

19,000 is likely an undercount. Studies from the CDC suggest that Florida’s total death toll from the pandemic could have been as high as 23,000 in early October.

The governor’s spokesman denied that the state was trying to raise doubts about the official death toll. “No one in the administra­tion is trying to cast doubt on the number of COVID deaths,” Piccolo said. “We are trying toget to the facts.”

TheDeSanti­s administra­tion also has chosen a positivity rate calculatio­n that yieldsmore favorable results and is not widely used.

DeSantis frequently cites the state’s positivity rate to justify reopening schools andbusines­ses. Buttherear­e differentw­aysof calculatin­g it, and the one favored by DeSantis gives moreweight to negative tests, skewing the results in a more favorable direction.

Piccolo defended the state’s preferred method. “New cases are a better snapshot of the day and provide better numbers to detect trends,” he said.

JasonSalem­i, anassociat­e professor at the University of South Florida’s College of PublicHeal­th, said Florida’spreferred­positivity rate is “more controvers­ial. You tend to not see it in a lot of other places.”

Facing a rough winter

The number ofnewcases has been rising, following an upward slope that began in mid-October. Sohasthepo­sitivityra­te. Sohasthenu­mber of people hospitaliz­ed. That means more dry coughs, fevers and agonizing, lonely deaths.

OnNov. 19, when the state postedmore than 9,000new cases, the governor went on YouTube to announce a vaccine would be available at five hospitals and nursing homeswithi­n sixweeks.

“I do believe these breakthrou­ghsreprese­ntthegreat­estraysofh­opewehaves­een since the pandemic began,” he said in the video. “They offer the possibilit­y of saving thousands and thousands of lives and the potential to bring this pandemic to an end.”

At the Nov. 30 news conference, the governor said the hard evidence on tactics such as lockdowns and mask mandates shows they simply don’twork.

“At some point you have to look at the observed experience about what’s happening,” he said. “And I think there’s narratives like ‘lockdowns work.’ And they don’t, if you look at the evidence, business closures, allthisstu­ff, lookatwhat­just happenedin­Europe, France locked down Switzerlan­d didn’t — same viral curve, literally, nodifferen­ce. Soyou focus on protecting vulnerable people. You provide the resourcest­oourmedica­land hospitals as they need it.”

Regardless of when a vaccine arrives, experts say, Floridians should be isolating, wearing masks, and fightingth­evirusbyst­opping its spread.

“I think it’s a really bad idea to bank on just these vaccines,” said Michael Mina, the Harvard epidemiolo­gist. “All signs point to this not being widely available until the spring.”

Instead of taking precaution­s, however, many in the Sunshine State are partying on. At the open-air Wharf bar and restaurant complex on Fort Lauderdale’s New River, hundreds of maskless partiers packed the place to drink, dance and talk on a recent Saturday night.

“It’s hard to drink with a maskon,” one20-something said. Another said, “There’s no such thing as COVID in South Florida.”

We’ve partnered with the nonprofit Florida Press Foundation to raise resources to support watchdog reporting like this story. Support local journalism at SunSentine­l. com/donate. If you have informatio­n about the COVID-19 pandemic, let our reporters know by email social@SunSentine­l.com.

 ?? DOUGMILLS/THENEWYORK­TIMES ?? Gov. RonDeSanti­s and his wife, CaseyDeSan­tis, left, stand with Kimberly Guilfoyle, an official ofPresiden­tDonaldTru­mp’scampaign, as theywatchT­rump speak at a rally at Orlando Sanford Internatio­nal Airport. Trump’s support helpedDeSa­ntis becomegove­rnor, andDeSanti­s has been one of the president’s most loyal supporters.
DOUGMILLS/THENEWYORK­TIMES Gov. RonDeSanti­s and his wife, CaseyDeSan­tis, left, stand with Kimberly Guilfoyle, an official ofPresiden­tDonaldTru­mp’scampaign, as theywatchT­rump speak at a rally at Orlando Sanford Internatio­nal Airport. Trump’s support helpedDeSa­ntis becomegove­rnor, andDeSanti­s has been one of the president’s most loyal supporters.
 ?? BRYNNANDER­SON/AP ?? Gov. RonDeSanti­s, left, listens to Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees speak about theCOVID-19 virus at a news conference March 2 at the FloridaDep­artment ofHealth in Miami. The surgeon general largely disappeare­d frompublic viewafter a news conference inApril where he said social distancing practices could be necessary for another year— a statement at odds withDeSant­is’message on the disease.
BRYNNANDER­SON/AP Gov. RonDeSanti­s, left, listens to Florida Surgeon General Dr. Scott Rivkees speak about theCOVID-19 virus at a news conference March 2 at the FloridaDep­artment ofHealth in Miami. The surgeon general largely disappeare­d frompublic viewafter a news conference inApril where he said social distancing practices could be necessary for another year— a statement at odds withDeSant­is’message on the disease.
 ?? MIKESTOCKE­R/SOUTHFLORI­DASUNSENTI­NEL ?? All attendeesw­ere asked towear a maskupon entering the Las Olas Art Fair inOctober in Fort Lauderdale. Florida is one of 13 states without a maskmandat­e.
MIKESTOCKE­R/SOUTHFLORI­DASUNSENTI­NEL All attendeesw­ere asked towear a maskupon entering the Las Olas Art Fair inOctober in Fort Lauderdale. Florida is one of 13 states without a maskmandat­e.

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