TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Surrounded by medical professionals in Ocala, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo spoke at Ocala Regional Medical Center to discuss early treatment for COVID-19. The event included signs reading “Early Treatment Saves Lives,” a slogan used when the state launched its monoclonal antibody treatment sites in August as cases ramped up in Florida.
Now, amid concerns over a potential surge of cases due to the new Omicron variant, the governor and state surgeon general are working to assuage fears over the number of coronavirus cases increasing, after weeks of continuous decline of reported infections ending, with case numbers starting to increase.
Mentioning how knowledge on the treatment option was less known at the start of the treatment push, DeSantis said the state’s effort to open up 25 sites across the state made the treatment more accessible, in addition to other locations providing the medical option.
The previous surgeon general, Scott Rivkees, had made a standing order for the Regeneron and other mAb treatments to be available for any residents who needed it. DeSantis said the early treatment was very important for treating COVID-19, and “giving people a beeline” to get the treatment early enough made “a big difference.”
DeSantis said other states are making residents “go through hoops” to get the treatment, which takes time. In Florida, the governor said the delay being “cut out” helped get it to more patients in time to make a difference, with a positive effect on hospitalizations for COVID treatment.
The governor criticized the Biden administration’s rationing of mAb treatment after Florida’s success with the Regeneron clinics, and that Florida had entered a deal to receive other mAb options, like sotrovimab, to continue providing treatment to residents. He said the federal government made a similar move shortly after.
DeSantis said the early treatment efforts contributed to the lower caseload the state experienced from new COVID-19 cases, and now that cases are surging “in the north,” Florida is seeing cases tick upward too. Still, DeSantis said the increase of cases in Florida last winter versus other states was not as high, even with the seasonally higher population thanks to travelers and snow birds coming to Florida.
“Most recently, Dec. 8, the FDA issued an emergency use authorization for a new product called Evusheld, and it’s AstraZeneca’s new monoclonal antibody product for pre-exposure prevention of COVID-19 for eligible populations 12 and older,” DeSantis said.
While the new product is different than the other monoclonal antibody treatments available, DeSantis said the treatment was a long-lasting, long-acting monoclonal therapy. He said clinical trials showed it reduced the risk of COVID infections “in the first instance” by 77%. Still, DeSantis said clinical trials were sometimes different than real-world use.
“If you look at Pfizer and their initial results saying 95% protection against infection, I don’t think anyone can look at what’s happened over the last six to eight months and say that it’s 95%,” DeSantis said. “So the immunity clearly wanes.” DeSantis said this was why boosters for COVID-19 vaccines were being pushed more.
The governor said the new treatment from AstraZeneca was for people who had not yet been exposed to COVID, and that were not infected.
“It’s something that you’re trying to provide some antibody protection for about a six month period of time, for the people that are specifically authorized to do the Evusheld are individuals who are immunocompromised and may not have adequate immune response to vaccination,” DeSantis said.
He said the Evusheld treatment was potentially better for people who may not be able to vaccinated or had other health concerns, where the vaccine was not recommended and where other treatments were needed instead. Still, the treatment is not for post-exposure COVID treatment according to DeSantis.
“Initially, we have a very limited allocation, it’s about 3,100 doses,” DeSantis said. “This initial allocation is going to go to hospitals and clinics that are already administering monoclonal antibody treatment to patients, including right here in Ocala. And the way we tried to allocate it was to say ‘can we get it within a two-hour drive of everyone in Florida.'”
For those in more rural areas, DeSantis said it might be a little harder to access but that the state is trying to make it more widely available. Information on where to receive the Evusheld treatment will be made available online from the Florida Department of Health, similar to accessing information about other monoclonal antibody treatments and vaccination sites across the state.
DeSantis said the state anticipates a higher caseload in January, but not as high as in other states, and that the state would “not indulge in any of the insanity” happening in other parts of the country over COVID-19 restrictions, like forced masking and forced vaccination, while still shutting down from “heavy-handed” policies.
Ladapo spoke next.
“This is another example of Gov. DeSantis’s thoughtful leadership,” Ladapo said. “It’s sad that we’ve had a period time where there’s been so much thoughtlessness with people not thinking about the implications of what they’re doing.”
Ladapo mentioned that he’s been doing some of his own research on how educational gaps between “white and brown” students had widened during the pandemic. He said that schools serving ethnic minorities, and on the other side of the political spectrum and advocate for minorities, had closed schools during the pandemic. Ladapo said the closure of those schools because of COVID-19 put those with the least resources at odds with the resources to maintain educational needs, making it harder to “compensate for those closures” and called the decision-making uninspired.
“He’s respected human rights, delivered civil liberties, he’s thought about the options people have and the fact that some people were very open to different types of measures,” Ladapo said. “Some people want to stay, some people for them it’s better to be out…maybe they need to work, maybe they need to keep their business going…some people are more inclined towards treatments instead of vaccinations.”
The state surgeon general said in Florida, all options were provided instead of some, and that the state had avoided the “deep politicization” of COVID responses seen across other parts of the country. He criticized the over-use of mandates seen in other states.
“When cases rise or some other indication that we decides merits it, we’ll add other measures to” Florida’s COVID-19 response, Ladapo said. He called shutdown efforts “lunacy” and said that Florida has thought about treatment instead.
“It’s something that’s just so basic to clinicians, but somehow 49 other states couldn’t figure out that the right thing to do was to offer vaccines and education, but also offer treatment options for people who became sick,” Ladapo said. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand why that didn’t happen.”
Ladapo said the use of Evusheld was a good extension of the treatment options Florida has already been prioritizing, particularly for people who may be unwilling or unable to make use of vaccines instead. He continued his criticism of other states’ responses, focused on how we should respect the freedom of choice and how national leadership was removing choice from Americans.
Ladapo said national leaders were trying to convince people they can’t make choices and it was their business whether residents had been vaccinated, despite it being “personal health information.”
Addressing Omicron specifically, Ladapo acknowledged that the new variant was far more transmissible, but that symptoms were so far reported as less severe.
“We in Florida are trying to make sure that none of our clinicians are in the same hypnotic state that unfortunately many clinicians around the country are in,” Ladapo said. “Where they think it’s appropriate to tell high-risk patients who test positive for COVID-19 to go home and wait, and just come back if they get sicker. That’s not a Florida approach. Our approach here is treatment. If you’re high-risk, we want you treated, we want you to know where you can access treatments, and we’ve included messaging about information about treatments, availability of treatments, to every licensed medical physician in this state.”
He encouraged physicians to treat patients in the state and said that treatment was the expectation from the state.
After some patients and medical professionals spoke about monoclonal treatments, and some workers were honored by local leaders, DeSantis discussed the state efforts to preserve jobs and prevent COVID-focused mandates, as well as various legal efforts to keep Florida free from federal restrictions.
This effort includes lawsuits against the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, among others, centered on vaccine mandates for federal workers and for employees of businesses with more than 100 staff.
DeSantis said that some of the lawsuits were more on matters of principal, even if it wouldn’t ultimately effect Floridians directly. He described the OSHA vaccine mandate, enabled by statutory language and policies from decades ago, as government “run amok.”
“If they’re able to do it on that, there’s going to be other ways where they can weaponize the machinery of government to impose really far-reaching policies that really invade on people’s individual freedoms and extend beyond the enumerated powers that have been delegated by the Constitution,” DeSantis said. Then he took questions from reporters.
Responding to a question about the allegations that Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried made regarding appointments at Florida education boards and political contributions to his political campaigns, DeSantis called the allegations baseless.
“It’s obviously false on its face,” DeSantis said. “It would require probably 20 minutes of investigation to do be able that, it’s just another baseless conspiracy charge that gets thrown around. It’s obviously not true.”
DeSantis said that since he’s been governor, Florida universities have ranked higher among American colleges and that the state had been ranked fifth in the country for public universities, regardless of his appointees and those appointed before he took office.
The governor brought Ladapo to the podium again to respond to a question about COVID-19 testing, though he said testing was a tool for people presenting symptoms and that federal funding used for testing had been used in different ways in different parts of Florida.
“I don’t think there’s any evidence that mass testing of healthy people has done very much to interrupt any of these seasonal waves,” of COVID infections, DeSantis said.
Ladapo said the state was using a “rational approach” to how it was responding to the coronavirus, particularly with the arrival of Omicron in the United States.
“We anticipated that there would be additional case increases, and possibly surges,” Ladapo said. “We’re seeing some evidence of that in other parts of the country. The science regarding Omicron is actually extremely interesting, the velocity at which it becomes the dominant strain is like nothing we’ve seen before during this pandemic. Of course countering that, the good news is there’s no evidence that it’s deadly. So, our approach is not actually different from what we’ve been doing.”
Ladapo said we had testing sites and resources in place, and that the state was monitoring the volume of positive testing and testing generally, and that the FLDOH is using that data to project epidemiological estimates for how the state would need to respond.
DeSantis then responded to issues with affordable housing in the state. Some state lawmakers sent a letter to the governor regarding rising housing prices for rent and home purchases. The governor fired off on Biden’s policies in response.
“Well first of all what we should do is take that letter and forward it to Joe Biden in the White House,” DeSantis said. “Because things are more expensive because of his policies. What they did earlier this year, trillions of dollars, you look at all the different things that have gone on that have hurt the supply chain, fuel prices, the CDC taking over all these rental properties, that is all contributing to what is happening. So we’re happy to forward that letter on to Biden. Make no mistake about it, that is what is driving increased costs across the board.”
DeSantis said that his governor’s budget was $99.7 billion. He compared Florida to New York State, the closest in population to Florida. Their budget, with “worse roads, worse bridges, worse K12, worse higher education,” but New York was higher, over $230 billion with higher taxes but “all kinds of other problems,” according to DeSantis.
He said the state would be increasing teacher pay, giving teacher bonuses and bonuses to cops and firefighters, and increasing salaries for law enforcement by 25% and addressing affordable housing with a fully-funded Sedowski trust fund for housing needs in his coming budget requests for 2022.
DeSantis said the state was happy to address resident needs in a thoughtful and bold way.
“The safest voting is in-person, secret ballot, you hand it over inside the voting booth and inside the precinct,” DeSantis said. “The more that you have mail ballots floating around in the ether, the greater opportunity when that leaves the elections officials, the greater opportunity you can have for potential impropriety.”
He said that was why he’d signed legislation banning ballot harvesting, and said that multiple vote efforts by political operatives, and efforts to collect votes and simply dump them were problems that Florida had no tolerance for.
In the next legislative session, DeSantis said the state would be seeking higher penalties for ballot harvesting and for those voting with fraudulent identities. He also said they wanted people to prove they still lived in Florida to vote in Florida.
Still, he did not directly respond to the question on the voter fraud alleged to have occurred in The Villages, where three Republican residents were accused of attempting to cast multiple votes in the 2020 election. Instead, he reiterated legislative priorities regarding voting for the 2022 session.