DeSantis Claimed Pandemic Success in Florida as “Excess Deaths” Skyrocketed

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Despair and Disparity: The Uneven Burdens of COVID-19

Presidential hopeful Gov. Ron DeSantis ceaselessly pitches his response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Florida as a prime purpose why Republican major voters ought to select him over Donald Trump and different candidates. DeSantis fought off native masks mandates, questioned the protection of vaccines, and reopened faculties, companies and seashores earlier than a lot of the nation, insurance policies he claims saved Florida’s financial system whereas focusing prevention efforts on the aged and susceptible.

Or so the story goes. A nationwide examine on “extra mortality” printed within the journal Science this week pours chilly water on DeSantis’s claims and divulges that the variety of COVID-related deaths outdoors of main metropolitan areas had been seemingly a lot greater than initially reported. Like different rural and lower-income areas throughout the USA, and the Deep South particularly, counties in central Florida and the panhandle suffered tragically excessive loss of life tolls in the course of the second 12 months of the pandemic regardless of a large, nationwide effort to make COVID testing and vaccines broadly accessible.

As of March 10 of this 12 months, about 86,850 Floridians have died from COVID in line with official tallies, with Florida rating third within the nation for whole COVID deaths behind the behemoth states of Texas and California. In the long run, Florida’s response to COVID was not as efficient as DeSantis and others could promote, in line with Andrew C. Stokes, a demographer and sociologist at Boston College who coauthored the examine with scientists and public well being specialists.

“Ron DeSantis has been in a position to promote Florida as a hit story, however that doesn’t bear out when you dig into the county degree information,” Stokes mentioned in an interview. “A lot of central and rural Florida skilled exceptionally excessive mortality charges within the second 12 months, when vaccines had been accessible and different measures had been in place, like elevated entry to [COVID] remedies.”

By evaluating the whole variety of recorded deaths from April 2020 to February 2022 to the variety of deaths scientists would usually count on to see over the identical time interval, the researchers measured “extra mortality” or “extra deaths” on the state and county degree throughout the nation. Stokes mentioned this methodology supplies extra correct snapshots of the pandemic’s influence than official loss of life counts from rural areas the place COVID information reporting is spotty and fewer sick folks die inside well being care services.

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In lots of rural areas, coroners are elected officers who could not have deep medical experience or the assets to precisely examine the reason for loss of life. Stokes mentioned some coroners might also be swayed by their very own partisan biases about COVID and the pandemic. Certainly, each Trump and DeSantis systematically downplayed the pandemic, dismissing data experts and misleading the public whereas attacking Democrats to appease far proper pundits and the GOP base.

Extra deaths not assigned to COVID-19 might also replicate deaths not directly associated to the pandemic, together with deaths related to hospital avoidance attributable to worry of the virus or the brutal enhance in deadly drug overdoses. On the identical time, what COVID mitigation measures had been in place seemingly diminished the variety of deaths brought on by different frequent illnesses such because the flu.

“We suspect that many of the extra deaths that we’re seeing above the official COVID tallies are COVID deaths, the overwhelming majority of them,” Stokes mentioned. “Most of the areas that had been most deeply affected by the pandemic within the second 12 months had been additionally areas with the poorest surveillance information, so research utilizing the official loss of life tallies are likely to miss the complete extent of the pandemic within the second 12 months.”

The examine discovered almost 1.2 million extra deaths throughout the U.S. in the course of the first two years of the pandemic, whereas the Facilities for Illness Management and Prevention studies about 1.1 million COVID deaths as of July 1, 2023. Practically half of the surplus deaths — the lives of an estimated 544,194 folks — had been recorded in the course of the second 12 months of the pandemic, when billions of {dollars} in help from Congress was flowing by way of the states to supply widespread entry to COVID assessments and vaccines. In keeping with the examine, extra mortality in Florida adopted broader nationwide developments:

Total, extra mortality decreased in massive metropolitan counties however elevated in nonmetropolitan counties. Regardless of the preliminary focus of mortality in massive metropolitan Northeastern counties, nonmetropolitan Southern counties had the best cumulative relative extra mortality by July 2021. These outcomes spotlight the necessity for investments in rural well being because the pandemic’s rural influence grows.

“In western Europe, their second pandemic 12 months was a lot better,” Stokes mentioned. “They often rebounded, whereas we continued to see sustained extra mortality within the second 12 months regardless of widespread vaccine entry.”

Within the U.S., the pandemic has laid naked the deep inequities in well being care high quality and entry confronted by lower-income folks and other people of shade, who disproportionately work the “important” jobs on the pandemic’s entrance strains. Stokes mentioned one of the vital alarming findings was a tragic enhance in extra mortality throughout the agricultural South in the course of the 2021 Delta wave. In lots of of those areas, funding for well-functioning public well being methods was minimize out of state budgets years in the past if it existed within the first place, and conservative politicians (together with in Florida) have refused to expand Medicaid to supply well being protection for extra lower-income sufferers.

“Rural Southern communities, together with Black communities, had been closely affected attributable to failures in state insurance policies and a failure to assist rural well being infrastructure — particularly the failure to get ‘pictures in arms’ in these areas,” Stokes mentioned. “There is also a false impression that rural America [equals] white folks. Black communities sustained extra COVID mortality in later phases of the pandemic, and that displays lack of entry.”

White folks in rural Florida and throughout the South had been additionally hit exhausting as conservative politicians exploited public backlash to pandemic restrictions and vaccines that the Trump administration spent $18 billion to roll out rapidly and supply freed from cost.

“The story of the second 12 months of the pandemic is a narrative of white mortality charges rising with out a marked decline in Black and Hispanic mortality charges,” Stokes mentioned. “The [racial] disparities declined within the second 12 months, however not as a result of charges improved noticeably for Black and Hispanic populations. It was extra that white loss of life charges obtained worse attributable to partisanship and misinformation.”

Counties within the rural Southwest and 4 Corners space additionally noticed dire will increase in extra deaths in the course of the pandemic’s second 12 months, whilst extra mortality declined in different areas and extra populous areas of Southwestern states. Stokes mentioned this displays a dearth of high quality well being care services in rural areas and particularly on Native American reservations, the place folks are likely to reside remotely and public well being is chronically underfunded.

“Some counties, like Navajo County in Arizona, are disproportionately reservation and Native American populations,” Stokes mentioned. “We sadly see remarkably excessive extra mortality there even after a interval of widespread vaccination, attributable to a mixture of social and structural elements.”

The COVID virus first swept cities within the Northeast in 2020, however by July 21, 2021, charges of extra mortality within the nonmetro West and South had eclipsed the city Northeast. Cumulative charges of extra mortality remained greater within the nonmetropolitan South than in another area by way of the tip of February 2022, together with in Florida, the place extra deaths spiked in rural counties relative to the cities and suburbs.

Stokes in contrast Florida’s extra mortality information — and by extension, DeSantis’s much-touted pandemic insurance policies — to that of Massachusetts and different New England states, the place pandemic restrictions had been in place longer, vaccination charges are greater and well being care is usually simpler to entry for lower-income folks.

“One option to actually spotlight that coverage failure in Florida is to check Florida in the course of the Delta wave to any state within the mid-Atlantic or New England in the course of the Delta wave,” Stokes mentioned. “Massachusetts noticed nearly no extra mortality enhance throughout Delta, whereas Florida noticed a surge in deaths, particularly in rural areas the place extra deaths skyrocketed relative to the remainder of the state.”

The DeSantis presidential marketing campaign didn’t reply to a request for remark by the point this story was printed.

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