Fifteen thousand excess deaths from Covid-19 in Florida so far in 2021. That is the “Ron DeSantis death factor” I assert versus what would have happened if he had just been a mediocre governor instead of a dangerous one.
The nation’s governors, perhaps more than any other group of influential Americans, currently set the boundaries for most local responses regarding Covid-19 to both positive and negative outcomes. Most of the time, for good and bad, the governors are backed by their state legislatures, while some states, such as Michigan, demonstrate the costs of a party-aligned tug-of-war. Local jurisdictions such as school districts may also fight any one governor’s policies, and that is happening on both sides of the ideological divide. But the governors clearly set the enforcement reality in their respective states.
Florida’s governor Ron DeSantis makes for an interesting case study as a data outlier with a very bad policy outcome to which that he tenaciously holds. DeSantis was an early proponent of the vaccine before moving back later to a more Trumpian position. He paid off political favors by prioritizing the earliest vaccine rollouts to seniors in Republican strongholds such as the central Florida area collectively called The Villages, as well as other well-off and senior-heavy communities like my own Manatee County’s Lakewood Ranch. 
As a result of that early effort, one-dose Covid-19 vaccination rates in Florida are high for a “red state.” Conservative Sumter County, home to The Villages, boasts a vaccination rate of 83%. This higher-than-average rate of elderly vaccinations pulls the lagging rest of Florida up to a mediocre average score of just under 69%, better than most other southern states. However, the death rate in Florida from Covid-19 in 2021 remains among the highest in the country.
The chart below looks at vaccination rates versus death rates per 100,000 citizens since January, 2021, when the vaccine first started making an impact on death rates. It is color-coded based on the party of the state’s current governor. Outlier Florida hangs alone on the mid-right.
Sources: Centers of Disease Control and USAFACTS.orgThis data tells several interesting stories. In general, how your state votes and one-dose vaccination rates are highly correlated. Death rates from Covid in 2021 have been far worse in those “red states” with poor vaccination take-up. Three northeastern states have Republican governors, but all three have had high rates of vaccination and below-average death rates in 2021. Michigan and Nevada, on the other hand, appear to evidence the conflicts between pro-vaccine Democratic governors and strong Republican opposition to mitigation measures.
The DeSantis factor
Florida has been an interesting outlier all year. As earlier noted, the dominant senior population in the state has largely been vaccinated. Deaths of seniors from Covid-19 had dominated the statistics during 2020 at 82% of all Covid deaths. But with good vaccination rates, the percentage of senior deaths has dropped to 68% for year-to-date 2021, dropping even further to 61% of the deaths since July.
Famously, Governor DeSantis “opened the state” for Spring Break tourism in 2021, contributing to a very bad summer for Covid hospitalizations and deaths. He tried to stop cruise lines from mandating vaccinations for travel. He has called for a special legislative session to fight President Biden’s vaccine mandates. And now, to up the political theater, DeSantis proposes $5000 signing bonuses to recruit police officers fired from other jurisdictions for refusing to be vaccinated.
DeSantis recently recruited a new state Surgeon General from out of state precisely because he is way out on the fringes of medical professionals, casting doubt on not only the Covid-19 vaccines, but all vaccines for children. This “doctor” refuses to don a mask, even in the presence of cancer patients.
There is no other governor in the country who is more open in his hostility to mitigations against the coronavirus. But have DeSantis’ actions had a real effect on deaths and hospitalizations from Covid-19?
Other explanations for Florida’s outlier status?
As of October 22’s CDC data report, the death count since January 2021, which is about when vaccines were beginning to be introduced in Florida, has exceeded 159 per 100,000 residents, totaling 35,000 human deaths to date. Only two states exceed that level of 2021 deaths, Alabama and Mississippi. No surprise here, as these two states almost always rank at the bottom of public health measures.
What sets Florida apart, as I noted earlier, is its “mid-range” vaccination percentage of 68% for at least one dose. If the Florida vaccination rate is indeed “mid-range,” then why are deaths 78% higher than the median death rate for the country (both red and blue states) of 89.6 per 100,000 residents, and well over twice the average death rate of states with Democratic governors (73.9 per 100,000 so far in 2021)?
In an earlier post, I emphasized how important it is to get clarity in controversial issues regarding your “prior,” the assumptions and data that establish your proposed causation. My prior is pretty basic: Vaccines and time-proven communicable disease mitigations such as masking minimize the spread and the most lethal effects of Covid-19. You can cut the data dozens of ways and this assumption always appears to hold.
What are some other possible explanations for Florida’s high death rate despite mid-level vaccinations? The state’s high elderly population might be a factor, but as I have noted, the vaccination rate for Florida seniors is high and the senior percentage of deaths has been declining all year, well below the horrific experience of 2020. The dying population has statistically become much younger in Florida this year.
Hot weather or time spent inside air-conditioned buildings? As I have documented and graphed in prior posts, the “red state” death rate for each preceding seven-day period has consistently exceeded the “blue states,” north or south, east or west, all year long.
Hospitals and the CDC “cooking the books” on death data? The deeper you have to reach beyond the data, the more you move into conspiracy theory and “Crazytown.” Sometimes the data is the data.
Quantifying the deaths
The current Florida population is about 22 million, and there have been some 35,000 deaths attributed to Covid-19 so far in 2021, yielding the year-to-date death rate of 159 per 100,000 residents. If Florida had been able to achieve a death rate similar to most other states with mid-range mitigation measures, which is 89.6 per 100,000, 2021 Florida deaths would have only amounted to about 19,700 deaths to date, or over 15,000 fewer deaths! And we have not included the life-long effects on hospitalized survivors, which number many thousands more.
The state of New York, of a similar size to Florida, had a disastrous 2020 before most Covid-19 treatment and mitigation options were understood. In 2021, however, its strong vaccine push and often-rigid mitigation efforts have brought the year-to-date death rate down to 58 per 100,000 residents. That is less than 40% of the Florida rate, or the equivalent of 22,000 fewer deaths!
I don’t believe it is a stretch to say that the “wide open state” purposefully instituted and enforced by Governor DeSantis has resulted in between fifteen and twenty thousand excess deaths in 2021 just through the third week of October. Remember that when you walk into a public place without your mask, or party in your favorite crowded entertainment venue. The policies of Governor Ron DeSantis, implemented collectively through “his people,” have literally killed many thousands of citizens in excess of “normal” causes of death. This is clearly moral culpability, if not legal guilt.
And lest you think that these were just old people ready to die anyway, I like to post this insurance industry table showing how many more years of life can expected once you reach a certain age. These years were robbed from Covid victims regardless of age.
I would personally like at least an even shot at my statistically remaining fourteen years, thank you. So, get vaccinated and put on your damn mask, Floridians!
- The Miami Herald published an excellent series of articles in February of 2021 documenting how the earliest Florida vaccines were going “coincidentally” to well-connected DeSantis strongholds. The Herald missed one January distribution I personally found out about from an early-vaccinated resident of an exclusive golf course community north of Tampa. When challenged about this favoritism, DeSantis did not deny it, rather he threatened to pull vaccines from the less wealthy part of the county in which I live, saying, “If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it and we’re totally happy to do that.”