Of all the cesspits of anti-science and antivaccine nuttery in the US, Florida has a strong claim to being the most anti-science and nuttiest. First, it has Gov. Ron DeSantis, whose embrace of Great Barrington Declaration-style, “don’t worry, be happy,” “let COVID-19 rip” policies recently led to his appointment of an utter crank to head up the entire medical and public health bureaucracy of the state. This crank, Dr. Joseph Ladapo, was a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, the same group that was pushing hydroxychloroquine a year ago (and is pushing ivermectin now and antivaccine misinformation now) as a miracle cure for COVID-19 and counts among its members a grifting quack and a physician who thinks that demon sperm from sex with demons is responsible for a number of gynecological maladies and was a signatory of the Great Barrington Declaration, which basically advocated letting COVID-19 infect the “healthy” population and using “focused protection” to keep the elderly and others at high risk of serious disease and death safe, neglecting the impossibility of protecting high risk people if the virus is ripping through the population. Unfortunately, Dr. Lapado is not the only crank in charge. Enter Florida State Senator Manny Diaz, whose recent bloviations are remarkable mainly for being utterly honest about what the endgame always was for those resisting COVID-19 mandates:
Florida’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic will continue to be a major focus during the 2022 Legislative Session for Sen. Manny Diaz, the top Republican shaping health care policy in the upper chamber.
His work could include revisiting existing vaccine requirements long in place in schools, a response to the debate about whether COVID-19 vaccines should also be required.
Diaz, who came down with COVID-19 last winter, said he wants to review the state’s vaccination efforts as well as Gov. Ron DeSantis’ work on getting monoclonal antibody treatments to those who test positive for COVID-19.
The Senator, who acknowledges he hasn’t gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, says he’s firmly against vaccine mandates. At the urging of the Governor, the Legislature earlier this year passed a bill that would prevent private businesses from requiring proof of vaccination from their customers. But the bill did not ban employers from requiring their employees to be vaccinated.
Before I go on to discuss this further, note that this is not just some random back bencher, some irrelevant crank. (Sen. Diaz is a crank all right, but by virtue of his position he is unfortunately far from irrelevant.) Between politicians like Gov. DeSantis and Sen. Diaz plus COVID-19 crank physicians like Dr. Ladapo, it’s almost as though Florida is trying to let as many people as possible die. After all, remember how Dr. Ladapo said that he thought that vaccination against COVID-19 was being overemphasized, even going so far as to say that the vaccines have “been treated almost like a religion, and that’s just senseless”? As I pointed out before, whenever someone likens vaccination to a religion, he is, knowingly or unknowingly, parroting a common antivaccine talking point.
Tommy Beer at Forbes provides some key background about Florida:
The Florida Department of Health has long required the following vaccines to be administered before children may enroll and attend childcare or school in the state: diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis, inactivated polio vaccine, measles-mumps-rubella (MMR), varicella (chickenpox), Haemophilus influenzae type b, pneumococcal conjugate, and Hepatitis B. Under Florida law, only parents who declare such immunizations conflict with their religious tenets can exempt their children from vaccination requirements. Some GOP lawmakers in Florida have been criticized for taking a stance against Covid-19 vaccines while not previously, or currently, fighting against other state-mandated inoculations. Earlier this year, the Republican-led Florida Legislature passed a bill that banned businesses, governments and schools from requiring “vaccine passports.”
It is true that Sen. Diaz qualifies his statement (apparently in order to seem reasonable) by saying that MMR, polio vaccine, and all the others have a long history of safety and efficacy, in contrast to the COVID-19 vaccine, but the fact that he would even propose reviewing school vaccine mandates gives away his game and is a dangerous development. Florida’s school vaccine mandate is actually pretty much in line with most other states. It’s even slightly more rigorous than some in that the only nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates that it allows are religious exemptions. It does not all “personal belief” exemptions, which includes, in essence, any reason for not vaccinating based on “personal belief.” Of course, I also oppose religious exemptions to school vaccine mandates (or any vaccine mandate), and antivaxxers have long abused religious exemptions, claiming fake religious exemptions, going all the way back to before I had even started paying attention to the antivaccine movement and predictably continuing right up through the COVID-19 pandemic.
Prior to around a decade ago, school vaccine mandates had long enjoyed a status that was as close to apolitical as any policy has ever enjoyed in the United States. At the very least, they enjoyed broad and strong bipartisan support and were relatively uncontroversial for decades, representing a reasonable compromise between public health and freedom. There was no compulsory vaccination, but if parents refused vaccines for their children there were consequences in terms of not being able to access public schools and daycare facilities. Because of the privileged position religion has always had in the US as a belief system, there were always religious exemptions. Then, more and more states started allowing nonreligious “personal belief” exemptions, which then led to problems with low vaccine uptake in a number of states, which led states to start trying to make such exemptions harder to obtain or banning them altogether.
Enter the Disneyland measles outbreak during the 2014 Christmas holiday season, which was due to low MMR vaccine uptake and galvanized California state lawmakers. In 2015, they passed SB 277, a law that, for all intents and purposes, eliminated nonmedical religious and “personal belief” exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Unsurprisingly, the antivaccine movement strongly opposed passage of the law and during the battle over SB 277 figured out that framing resistance to school vaccine mandates as a matter of “freedom” and “parental rights” could attract the support of right wing groups opposed to government regulation. Within a couple of years, the issue of school vaccine mandates had become hopelessly politicized, with right wingers and Republicans coming down on the side of making exemptions easier to obtain and weakening school vaccine mandates.
In the process, Republicans started backing all sorts of bills to make measles great again and becoming more and more opposed to public health interventions of any kind intended to control infectious diseases, justifying their opposition with bromides like “freedom” and “personal responsibility.” This led to attempts to pass laws like the one in Michigan that would have make personal belief exemptions easy to obtain and even restricted public health officials from being able to bar unvaccinated children from school in the middle of an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease. Although fortunately this bill never became law, it’s hard not to see it as a precursor to the many bills proposed by Republicans this year that would strip authority to issue emergency public health orders from governors (not coincidentally nearly all Democratic governors) and state and local public health authorities.
Meanwhile, a veritable ecosystem of disinformation and astroturf grew and grew to feed the conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and misinformation behind antivaccine and antimask propaganda. As a result of this and its having played footsie with the devil for political power, over the last six years, Republicans have gone from just pandering to antivaxxers without really having their hearts in it because right wing activist groups were opposed to vaccine mandates to many of them openly expressing antivaccine conspiracy theories themselves. For example, in 2018 one of the Republican candidates held an antivaccine—excuse me, “vaccine choice”—roundtable in my very own congressional district, chock full of conspiracy theories, pseudoscience, and other nonsense promoted by a local antivaccine group called Michigan for Vaccine Choice. I documented it all by attending as a mole. Elsewhere, a number of statehouses have a large contingent of antivaccine legislators (or those willing to play ball with them, like Sen. Diaz). Yes, I’m talking to you, Ohio and Oregon (where, although Democrats control the legislature, Republicans were able to block a bill to strengthen school vaccine mandates by refusing to come to work and denying the bill a quorum). Truly, as Sen. Diaz demonstrates, the Republican Party has gone from just pandering to antivaxxers in 2015 to inarguably being the party of antivaxxers, and this process was nearly complete before the pandemic.
And Florida is not alone:
Dr. Michelle Fiscus, Tennessee’s medical director in charge of vaccinations, was fired in mid-July after promoting vaccination to young people, an effort state legislators like Scott Cepicky, a Republican representative, found “reprehensible.” And then the state suspended vaccination outreach for all vaccines.
Dr. Fiscus says the anti-vaccine movement is partly to blame. “I think it’s been this insidious growth of their influence on susceptible legislators,” she said, “especially in Southern states where they have taken the ‘medical freedom’ kind of angle.”
Though Tennessee has since resumed most of those programs, the pause was a bellwether. Had widespread Republican opposition to Covid vaccination now apparently reached the point of interfering with routine childhood vaccinations?
Gov. DeSantis, Sen. Diaz, Rep. Cepicky, and their fellow travelers are but the latest manifestation of this conversion, which was turbocharged by the pandemic. As Tara Haelle recently put it, the pandemic is the moment that antivaxxers have been waiting for to eliminate all vaccine mandates:
At the anti-vaccine Health Freedom Summit in 2020, several anti-vaccine activists spoke. Jennifer Larson, who believes vaccination caused her child’s autism, described how she had worked to gain the trust of Minnesota legislators. She and another vaccine opponent, Mark Blaxill, had formed a political party in 2011 to run candidates who oppose vaccine mandates and “medical injury,” but they found the two-party system to be too entrenched. So they pivoted to supporting major-party politicians who would champion their causes.
“If they say something that might be considered controversial, we have a community of people who will run to have their back and support them,” Ms. Larson said at the gathering. “If you can, get involved … Get to know them, get them to trust you.”
That became the anti-vaccine playbook theme . And in state after state, vaccine opponents have gradually leveraged their state and local Republican parties to their ends, riding the “freedom” wave that has become so central to messaging. Hence the seamless marriage between anti-vaccine activists and groups protesting mask mandates and lockdowns.
Note the year: 2011. That’s when The Canary Party was formed with the express purpose of opposing school vaccine mandates, indeed, vaccine mandates of any kind. Back then, it teamed up with Tea Party-affiliated groups, but nonetheless remained a very fringe group. These days, The Canary Party still exists, but it’s not really fielding candidates. Instead, it’s wielding influence, and you can see why its message resonates among Republicans if you read its position paper, which does criticize conservatives for “reflexively” opposing regulation, but criticizes “progressives” more for supporting vaccine mandates.
Those of us who have been following and opposing the antivaccine movement for years have always known that one huge part of the endgame for the antivaccine movement has always been to eliminate all vaccine mandates of any kind, be they mandates for school, government, or business. (The other major goal has been to be able to extract huge money through lawsuits from vaccine manufacturers for “vaccine-induced autism” and other claimed “injuries” due to vaccines.) The COVID-19 pandemic might have put the goal of eliminating most or all vaccine mandates within reach, at least in some states, thanks to the embrace of antivaccine “freedumb” by Republicans like Sen. Diaz and Gov. DeSantis. If antivaxxers are successful, this will bode ill for public health not just during the pandemic but for many years to come, even after things finally return to a semblance of normalcy.