Ron DeSantis, Praised for Florida COVID Response, Faces Surge in Hospitalizations

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis has received significant praise for his handling of the COVID pandemic, but the state is now facing a surge in hospitalizations and is leading the nation in cases of the virus, recording 73,181 infections over the past week, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Florida accounted for one in five new COVID infections in the U.S. in the week of July 16 to 22. That represents 340. 7 cases per 100,000 people in the Sunshine State.

The number of hospitalizations from the disease reached 6,369 on July 24, according to data dashboard from University of South Florida epidemiologist Jason Salemi. That's the largest number of hospitalizations from COVID in Florida since February.

DeSantis, a Republican, won praise from conservatives who lauded his refusal to impose COVID restrictions similar to other states.

The governor didn't impose a statewide mask mandate, though mask-wearing was recommended, and on May 3 he issued an order suspending all COVID-related local rules on businesses and individuals.

While DeSantis has repeatedly encouraged vaccinations, he's also banned businesses from requiring people to show proof of vaccination, suggesting this could discriminate against people who haven't taken the vaccine for medical or religious reasons.

DeSantis successfully sued the CDC to prevent the agency imposing COVID restrictions on cruise ships in the state and kept Florida's economy and schools more open than in states with tougher restrictions.

The governor's approach to the pandemic boosted his reputation among Republicans at a time when public health measures like mask-wearing and lockdowns were contentious issues.

His standing as a potential contender for the 2024 presidential nomination was also improved by his stance on pandemic restrictions, with bookmakers and some in the GOP rating his chances at the White House highly if former President Donald Trump chooses not to run again.

Florida appeared to avoid the worst of the pandemic, but a recent surge in cases, due in part to the highly transmissible Delta variant, has placed a new spotlight on DeSantis' approach.

On Thursday, a group of 405 Florida physicians criticized DeSantis' push to reopen the state's economy and his criticisms of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

Bernard Ashby, a cardiologist based in Miami and head of the Florida chapter of the Committee to Protect Health Care, told CBS Miami: "While hospitals in our state were filling up, DeSantis was shouting about "Freedom over Faucism."

"As a physician and a Floridian, I am frankly angry and ashamed. You know the Florida-man moniker unfortunately holds true in this particular circumstance," Ashby said.

DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw told The News Service of Florida that the physicians were poorly informed and said the governor "has spoken positively of the vaccines in public remarks nearly 100 times this year."

"He's proud of the successful rollout and the Seniors First strategy, which means 85 percent of our most vulnerable population is vaccinated, and thousands of lives saved. COVID cases, hospitalizations and especially deaths are down significantly compared to this time last year," Pushaw said.

Cases May Fall in August

Last week, DeSantis said of the surge: "It's a seasonal virus and this is the seasonal pattern it follows in the Sun Belt states." He added that he believes the number of cases will fall in August.

At a press conference in St. Petersburg, Florida, on Wednesday, DeSantis appeared to criticize jurisdictions that imposed mask-wearing requirements on vaccinated people.

"I get a little bit frustrated when I see some of these jurisdictions saying, even if you're healthy and vaccinated you must wear a mask because we're seeing increased cases," DeSantis said.

"Understand what that message is sending to people who aren't vaccinated. It's telling them that the vaccines don't work," he said.

DeSantis also appeared to rule out reconsidering his order that children returning to schools don't need to wear masks.

"We need our kids to be able to be kids," DeSantis said on July 22. "We need them to be able to breathe. It's terribly uncomfortable for them to do it."

Newsweek has asked Governor Ron DeSantis' office for comment.

Governor Ron DeSantis Speaks to the Media
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media about the cruise industry during a press conference at PortMiami on April 8, 2021, in Miami, Florida. The state is facing a surge in COVID cases. Joe Raedle/Getty Images