TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis called on the federal government to let states to directly purchase monoclonal antibody treatments at a news conference in Fort Lauderdale.
DeSantis said while it may not be as effective against omicron compared to its use against the delta variant, Florida still wanted to have the treatment available for those in need.
“Last week, I think many of you know we were concerned about what was happening with taking back of the supply, even more so than what has been, of the monoclonal antibodies. The federal government had stopped sending both Regeneron and the Eli Lilly monoclonal. It was based off of some preliminary study saying it would not be as effective against Omicron,” DeSantis said. “But of course Omicron’s not the only variant that’s out there. It’s something that we have seen applied with omicron patients and we have seen resolved.”
Last week, Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo sent and published a letter taking the federal Department of Health and Human Services to task for allegedly putting a proper amount of access to treatments such as Regeneron and other medical alternatives out of reach for Florida’s patients, and those in other states.
The letter came after the Biden administration began rationing access to the antibody treatments after supplies became limited across the U.S. At last check, Florida had confirmed more than 4.2 million COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic.
While DeSantis said HHS reversed course on the distribution for some monoclonal treatments, others had been “cornered” on the market by the federal government.
Pushing for more antibody treatments in Florida
To that end, a morning tweet from DeSantis’s official governor account said he’d be calling on the federal government to allow states to purchase the monoclonal antibody treatments on their own, rather than wait for the federal government to distribute a more limited supply to each state.
Referring to omicron’s effect on infections and vaccination status, DeSantis said vaccinations were not preventing the infection rate of omicron and pointed to Miami-Dade County in Florida, “one of the most vaccinated places in the country, if not the world” and that they still have had “huge” numbers of infections.
The governor said that omicron infections may generate immunity to the delta variant, according to a study done in South Africa, where omicron largely came from before spreading across the globe. He said the delta variant is still around, even while the omicron variant is the main variant in places like South Florida.
“Now that we’ve gotten the pathway cleared with Regeneron, now that we’ve gotten the pathway cleared with the bamlanivimab, and of course we want more and more of the sotrovimab to do,” DeSantis said. “We have the ability and we will immediately turn on additional sites as soon as the federal government gives us a supply. We will do an additional site here in Broward County, we’ll do an additional site in Miami-Dade, we’ll do an additional site in Palm Beach County, we’ll do an additional site in Central Florida, and we also have the capacity to increase the existing footprint, we do have a good existing footprint, and we have the ability to add five to 10 more sites as the demand may be.”
DeSantis said the ability to open the additional locations was contingent upon the federal government delivering more supplies for monoclonal antibody treatment, and that the state was looking for 30-40,000 additional doses.
He said the infrastructure was already in place to make treatment easy and effective across the state, as a result of previous efforts to deliver the monoclonal treatments.
“Those sites will be up the next day, they’re ready, we have DEM, we have Health, it’s all locked and loaded,” DeSantis said. “It’s just up to the federal government giving us more doses to be able ot administer for hte Floridians who need it.”
The governor said it would make a positive difference. Additionally, DeSantis said the legislature had already set funding aside for $1 billion in supply purchases for monoclonal antibodies, though the “federal government’s exclusive arrangement” may stop the state from buying it.
DeSantis said a key datapoint to look at in light of omicron was the number of people in hospitals testing positive for COVID while being treated for separate health needs, compared to the number hospitalized for COVID, rather than admitted with COVID. He said the most severe cases were still those with delta, not omicron.
As far as home tests for COVID-19, DeSantis said it was up to the federal government. He said the state would have purchased home tests to distribute, but the federal government has “total control,” so the state was waiting for what happens next.
For now, it’ll “all be done through the federal government,” DeSantis said.
The governor said Ladapo would be putting together new guidance for testing needs and who should be tested, in terms of getting readily available testing results for those seeking infection status.
The event was the first official news conference held by the governor since the holidays, when many state offices and their employees were with family and friends on previously scheduled closures.
It was also the first public event held by the governor since his appearance at the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Eve. In the days leading up to his Orange Bowl appearance, the governor had been working from the state capitol and spending time with his family as the state’s COVID-19 cases broke daily records for new cases five times in roughly a week.
DeSantis said Ladapo’s guidance would focus on “test if you have a reason” and prioritize getting the early treatment if needed.
“We are ready to go, on all of this, and have been ready for a long time,” DeSantis said. “We do not believe the federal government should be holding back anymore medications. We feel we have to offer this. Particularly for our elderly population.”
DeSantis said looking at omicron, and COVID-19 more generally, the young have always been at less of a risk compared to the state’s elderly population. The governor promised state intervention at nursing homes seeing COVID outbreaks to help contain the virus.
Surgeon general discusses testing, treatment
He also said he’s asked Ladapo to look at options for sequencing virus strains to see which variants are more common and adapt health strategy.
Ladapo spoke after the governor, and addressed the governor’s comments on treatment and epidemiology of the COVID-19 virus in Florida.
“Everyone knows omicron is spreading extremely rapidly,” Ladapo said. “The good news is that it appears to be less virulent and the hospitalizations are not increasing nearly at the rate that the cases…it’s not close, there’s a big difference between the change in cases and the change in hospitalizations.”
Ladapo said the governor was correct about the distinction between hospitalization of patients with COVID and hospitalizations for COVID. He said maybe “half of people on average” are in the hospital for something else, which Ladapo said is reflected in ICU usage data, which is not increasing at the same rate as the number of reported COVID cases.
The state surgeon general praised his health department colleagues and the governor for their assistance in reversing the federal government’s course on monoclonal antibody supply and demand, saying it was “good news for Florida and good news for the rest of the country.”
Ladapo said the state was working with the federal government to get supplies of the new Merck and Paxil COVID treatments to arrive at Florida’s pharmacies and help handle demand outstripping supply of treatments for high-risk patients.
He said some other medications were being studied for effects on treating COVID-19, mentioning a few different pharmaceuticals, such as fluvoxamine’s, effects on decreased hospitalizations.
Ladapo said people weren’t hearing about it because it’s not made by companies such as Merck or Pfizer.
Then, the surgeon general circled back to the governor’s earlier comments on a new testing guidance that he was developing. Ladapo said he’d be focusing the new guidance on “high-value testing” rather than “low-value testing.” He said the state would prioritize testing that “was likely to change outcomes” for patients.
Ladapo said the difference was between testing elderly patients at higher risk, rather than children at lower-risk. He put it in terms of “grandmothers” versus “eight-year-olds.” Similar to previous events Ladapo spoke at, he said the state was prioritizing people needing to live, rather than focusing on limiting how people are living as a result of the pandemic’s effects.
Before Ladapo left the podium, DeSantis had the surgeon general discuss the clinical decision-making that led to the HHS temporarily restricting antibody treatment access. Ladapo said the fact that HHS was led by someone, Xavier Becerra, without a clinical medical background contributed to the “terrible clinical decision.” Ladapo said the laboratory data had initially shown a reduced efficacy of the monoclonal treatments on omicron, but did not mean that the treatments wouldn’t work for omicron patients.
“They made the decision to withhold the medication based on laboratory data,” Ladapo said. “But we care about clinical outcomes, and the decisions should be based, obviously, on clinical data, which is why they reversed it.”
Florida leaders united on COVID-19 response
The governor returned to the podium to reiterate the state’s position that any treatment is better than no treatment, even with the difference in data and lab testing on how to treat different variants. Then Florida Department of Emergency Management director Kevin Guthrie spoke.
Guthrie said DeSantis’s leadership had been the key to obtaining and providing the life-saving monoclonal antibody treatments for Floridians affected by COVID-19. He said the additional $1 billion set aside by the legislature to purpose treatments and supplies for COVID-19 was important to ensuring readiness as the COVID-19 pandemic continues.
“As the governor said, we are locked and loaded and ready to go,” Guthrie said. “This is not new to us, the Dept. of Emergency Management has been involved in this fight along our partners at the Dept. of Health, AHCA, our local county EM directors, for the last two years. We can perform quickly, we are built for speed, and that’s what we do, we respond in a time of need.”
Agency for Health Care Administration Secretary Simone Marstiller spoke next. She focused on ensuring proper care and treatment availability for Florida’s seniors, and praised the governor’s seniors first strategy from the beginning of the pandemic.
“That seniors first strategy still exists, hopefully we will get some additional supplies of mAb,” Marstiller said. “But even right now, for those facilities that either do not have a relationship with a long-term care facility, or otherwise need assistance for getting their residents the treatment that they need, the Dept. of Health, working with AHCA, can send individuals in, strike teams as needed, to give those individuals the treatments and vaccines or boosters, as they so choose.”
She thanked the governor for “shaming” the federal government into reversing course on antibody treatment availability. Marstiller said the COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state had decreased 68.91% since the peak on Aug. 18, 2021. She said as of Jan. 3, COVID-19 ICU bed utilization had decreased 84.2% since a peak on Aug. 24, 2021.
Marstiller also said she agreed with DeSantis’s point about cause of hospitalization and how those COVID cases are reported. She said delineating between hospitalized for COVID, rather than hospitalized for something else and having COVID should be a priority.
DeSantis praised Florida’s hospitals for expanding capacity as needed during the pandemic, thanking them for adjusting as population size shifted with the arrival of snowbirds and others moving to Florida.
He said it was important that Florida’s healthcare workers were able to have jobs in order to meet capacity, referencing the employees who had left their jobs due to vaccination status requirements. DeSantis also said the state was continuing its effort to offer the AstraZeneca preventative treatment for COVID-19, evusheld, a limited supply of which was given to Florida several weeks ago as the option became available across the U.S.
Supply levels of the experimental preventative antibody treatment are currently managed by the federal government.
Hospital officials thanked the governor and local legislators and agency heads for coming to Broward Health. CEO Shane Strum said any effort to give more supplies of Regeneron and other treatments were welcome, and thanked DeSantis for his strong leadership.
Questions and commentary
After local leaders offered similar praise, DeSantis criticized other states for policies that opened up the public to hysteria and panic, rather than letting people live their lives and have jobs. He said doing the opposite was “just non-negotiable” and praised Ladapo for saying “there’s no place for fear” when he first took office as the state’s new surgeon general. He said the state set aside so much money so they could help more people, but cautioned against going down the road of panic.
“We’re going to be there for folks,” DeSantis said. “Kids that are in school, thriving, means a healthier community. People that can put food on the table, means healthier families. So we’re not going to waver on that.”
DeSantis said he and his wife, Casey DeSantis, went to Hard Rock Stadium for the Orange Bowl, where people were having a good time and living their lives, and that you couldn’t undercut people’s ability to live thanks to pandemic hysteria.
Then, DeSantis opened up the floor for a question and answer session. Immediately, he addressed his reported absence from the public in the past two weeks.
“I mean I guess I should’ve been at the beach in Delaware, right?” DeSantis said, critiquing President Joe Biden’s time at his vacation home. “Then they would’ve been really happy with that. I mean, you look, we actually put out the schedule. I think these people didn’t know that, because we’re not doing a big press conference we’re not doing…you know Friday, Kevin, Joe and I all had discussions about you know doing what we’re doing. Of course I was down in Miami later Thursday, in the office working on some other stuff. And it’s true Wednesday there was nothing on the calendar and so I think they were like ‘Oh my god he’s on vacation’ so I just looked at my wife and said going to the hospital with you is not a vacation, for you, I know that.”
DeSantis said going with his wife to chemotherapy as she’s treated for breast cancer was something he should be doing as her husband, even if he’s Florida’s governor.
“It’s not a vacation, and I think this is something as a husband that I should be doing. I have accompanied her to all of her chemotherapy treatments and she’s there for a long time and I’m there most of the time, it’s a draining thing. When she’s done with it, it’s not something that’s great to see,” DeSantis said. “To a lot of people, particularly to those who have gone through breast cancer treatment, the notion that that would be considered a vacation is offensive to a lot of those folks.”
DeSantis said the First Lady was nearly done with her treatment, and was “committed to not being in the fetal position the whole time.” He said he thinks she’ll be all right by the end of it.
“All I can tell you is that sometimes we try to get this stuff done,” DeSantis said. “We just try to get this stuff done, we don’t do political, we just try to help people with this. But when you’re in a political arena, you’re unfortunate with the enemies you have.”
The governor, responding to another question, again committed to keeping schools in Florida open. Talking about education and omicron, DeSantis said the lower-income families were the most hurt by closures due to the coronavirus.
He also said that universities which are making students shelter in place for omicron should have to refund 100% of tuition to families. Another question about education and local “home-rule” gave DeSantis a moment to talk about the Parents’ Bill of Rights.
“Florida has a Parents’ Bill of Rights in this state, whicih says that politicians don’t get to countermand the rights of parents,” DeSantis said. “That means parents have hte primary responsibility for the health, education, upbringing of their kids.”
DeSantis said making kids where masks for eight hours a day was something that most parents don’t want, but that if the parents choose it, they could. He also referred to the reversal by some health experts on cloth masks and how they would block some transmission of COVID-19 while it spread as respiratory droplets. Still, DeSantis reiterated that it was ultimately up to parents as far as masking their children was concerned.
Asked about U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s recent trip to Florida, DeSantis responded with humor.
“If I had a dollar for every lockdown politician who decided to escape to Florida over the last two years, I’d be a pretty dog-gone wealthy man, let me tell ya” DeSantis said. “I mean, congress-people, mayors, governors, I mean you name it. It’s interesting though, the reception that some of these people will get in Florida. I think a lot of Floridians will say ‘Wait a minute, you’re bashing us because we’re not doing your draconian policies, and yet we’re the first place you want to flee to to go enjoy life.”
DeSantis said he was not surprised that the habit among politicians continues. “It’s just the reality that we’re dealing with. I’m happy though that Florida is a place that people know they can come and they can live like normal people and make their own decisions.”
The governor critiqued Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, for his “railing against the restaurants” during the pandemic. DeSantis said singling them out was wrong.
DeSantis said people know “they can come, they can get a beer, they don’t have to show papers,” to do anything, and said vaccine passports have been a failure in the areas that implemented them. He said it created “a two-tiered society” that discriminated against people for a personal choice in how they dealt with COVID-19, which Florida would not do.
The governor said new guidance from Ladapo may modify the state’s standing order on monoclonal antibody access to be a more targeted approach for use, so that those who were likely to recover without them would be less likely to get the treatment, while those at higher-risk would have more access. He said, though, that it was still contingent on if the federal government honored the state’s request for more access and stock of the COVID-19 treatments.
“It is going to be tailored to the folks that need it the most,” DeSantis said. He pointed to the lower hospitalization rate compared to higher case numbers as proof of his policies, then ended the news conference in Broward.