May 12, 2023 - Health

DeSantis signs "medical freedom" laws

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday sought to draw a contrast with the expiring COVID-19 public health emergency, signing a set of "medical freedom" measures into law, including bans on mask and vaccine mandates, and new conscience protections for health providers.

Why it matters: The potential 2024 presidential contender, has made medical freedom a key issue, casting aspersions on tools aimed at stopping COVID, such as dubbing the vaccines "mRNA jabs."

  • "A lot of people were harmed by what the federal government did and a lot of states did," DeSantis said during an event in Destin, Florida on Thursday, the Pensacola News Journal wrote. "Today there are still physicians out there trying to jab babies with mRNA shots."

Between the lines: The moves are part of a COVID-inspired appeal to libertarian sensibilities and personal choice that casts public health mandates as failed attempts that trampled on individual rights.

  • That rallying cry has proved particularly potent among many conservatives in the wake of the COVID pandemic, even as public health experts warn of the ongoing danger of misinformation it sows.

Details: The legislation blocks businesses or government entities from requiring vaccines or proof of post-infection recovery from COVID-19, as well as testing or mask-wearing, to gain entry or access services.

  • It also creates protections for prescribing alternative treatments and for those who opt out of providing health services due to conscience-based objections, as well as blocks "gain-of-function" research.
  • And it echoes religious conscience protections pushed by then-President Trump's administration to allow health care workers to refuse to provide services like abortion, sterilization or assisted suicide against the recommendations of top medical groups. Those protections were later blocked by a judge.

What they're saying: "The public health establishment botched the COVID response and any distrust of them by the public is self-generated," DeSantis spokesman Bryan Griffin said last month in a response to an email from Axios.

The other side: "It's not some abstract concept or theoretical discussion. 200,000 Americans died because of this shit," said Peter Hotez, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Development at Texas Children's Hospital, who led the development of a COVID vaccine for developing nations. He has received death threats as a key antagonist among the anti-vaccine crowd.

Yes, but: Republican strategists have said messages like DeSantis' will resonate beyond the conservative base into a general election, to suburban voters still angry over responses like school closings.

  • "Recommendations that were made and recommendations that were followed turned out, in retrospect, to have not been the right ones in many cases," Joe Grogan, director of the Domestic Policy Council under Trump and a member of Trump's coronavirus task force, told Axios. "I think medical freedom is drafting behind that ... I think it will resonate with a lot of people who think that parents should have more control and resent government mandates generally."
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