It’s not as if Florida’s reputation was composed 100% of beaches, palm trees, and Ernest Hemingway’s weird cats going into the pandemic. After all, even before Donald Trump, “Florida Man” had already become the two words most likely to precede a headline of any crime that involving enormous quantities of cocaine, leaping from a moving vehicle while on fire, or an alligator. Florida has always been … Florida.
But if the tradeoff between Florida’s political jackassery and a chance to bask in the sunshine has always seemed like a balance that the next Nor'easter could tip, Gov. Ron DeSantis has done his best to send that balance reeling in the other direction. Whether it’s failing to declare an emergency over a massive red tide that littered the beaches with millions of dead fish, or failing to fight the climate crisis in a state that could be largely submarine within decades, or refusing to declare a state of emergency even as the hospitals flood with COVID patients, DeSantis can be counted on to do one thing: Nothing.*
Actually, that’s not true. DeSantis can be counted on to do less than nothing. And there’s no better example than the way DeSantis continues to fight against schools and localities that want to save the lives of children, teachers, staff, and residents by taking minimal efforts to fight the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Vaccines, masks, and social distancing are the way to save lives—and the way to save the economy. What can’t work to save Florida? REGEN-COV, the monoclonal antibody treatment from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals. Not only can the treatment not be administered to patients who have already been hospitalized for COVID-19, or patients using oxygen for COVID-19, REGEN-COV has to be administered by IV and is only available in limited quantities.
So why is DeSantis pushing the treatment from Regeneron at every press conference rather than pushing Floridians to take a free vaccine or use cheap masks? We finally have an answer.
REGEN-COV is absolutely an effective treatment for COVID-19. If given to patients immediately after the onset of mild symptoms, it can cut the number of those who transition to severe illness by almost 70% (Note: that value is from tests completed back in March. It’s unclear the treatment is similarly effective against the delta variant,). However, the treatment is available only through an Emergency Use Authorization, the same as the vaccines, and that EUA is highly restrictive. In particular, it says that REGEN-COV is not for patients with severe illness, not for hospitalized patients, not for patients on oxygen or respiratory assistance.
That means, to be deployed effectively, REGEN-COV would have to be available everywhere and have to be given to Floridians as soon as their symptoms appeared. And that’s simply not possible.
It’s not possible. To begin with, because over the last seven days, Florida has conducted only 327,000 tests. That’s only a little over 200 tests per 100,000 residents per day. Just under 25% of those tests have been positive. That means that in Florida, most people going in for testing are already displaying symptoms. Many of them have been displaying symptoms for days before submitting to a test, and many of the tests themselves take two or more days to return results.
In the last 7 days, 151,300 Floridians have tested positive for COVID-19. If every one of those patients got REGEN-COV, that one week would be 10% of all the doses that have been purchased since the outset of the pandemic. The cost of that one week of doses would be roughly $200-450 million. And even if it still performed as it did in the spring, a 70% reduction in severe illness would be less than what could be achieved had Florida simply vaccinated these residents in advance.
Still, any unvaccinated patient who tests positive for COVID-19 and displays mild symptoms should definitely take REGEN-COV if they can find it and can find a location capable of providing the IV-based treatment. So DeSantis’s declaration that’s he’s rolling out a mobile “strike team” and creating a pop-up treatment site in Jacksonville are good things. Except it is a mobile strike team. As in one. And that site in Jacksonville has just been joined by one in Orlando. NPR reports that DeSantis is “looking at” other sites, but it doesn’t seem to have happened yet.
If the mobile team is as effective as the fixed sites, then all three together have a capacity to treat about 900 patients a day. Or about 4% of the daily caseload Florida has seen over the last week. 96% of those testing positive in Florida cannot get the antibody treatment, no matter what Ron DeSantis says.
Vaccines are available to everyone in the state. So are masks. DeSantis is spending his time ignoring one and suppressing the other while playing up a treatment that can, at best, save a small percentage of those in his state who need to be hospitalized. As a result, more than half the ICU beds in Florida are now occupied by COVID-19 patients as the state hits new records for hospitalizations and occupancy. Across the state, just under 92% of all ICU beds are full. That leaves 570 ICU beds for the entire state of Florida — a number that could easily be overwhelmed if there’s not an immediate drop in cases.
On Monday, as it reported on the opening of that Orlando-based treatment center, the Orlando Sentinel reported that DeSantis was promoting the use of REGEN-COV and downplaying the effectiveness of the vaccines.
As for why he wasn’t holding vaccination events, DeSantis pointed to the many he held over the winter and into the spring, saying “no governor did more public events.” He has not held an event specifically promoting vaccines since May, however, the same day he announced a ban on businesses requiring so-called “vaccination passports.”
If all this seems nonsensical, writer Jennifer Cohn provides the simple answer—and it’s exactly the answer you might expect.
The largest donor to DeSantis in 2020 was a man named Ken Griffin. Griffin is the founder and CEO of investment firm Citadel. And, as Yahoo Finance reported in June about Regeneron Pharmaceuticals:
The second largest stake is held by Citadel Investment Group, managed by Ken Griffin, which holds a $171.2 million call position
For months, it has seemed like Ron DeSantis wasn’t just failing to block COVID-19, he was openly promoting its spread. DeSantis has been objectively pro-virus from downplaying vaccines, banning masks, forcing schools to conduct in-person classes, and opening businesses even when it violated the guidelines published by his own Department of Health.
What could make sense of that? A top donor whose business is actively helped by getting more people sick.
* To be fair, DeSantis has at least admitted there is a climate crisis, has allowed rising sea levels to be considered when planning infrastructure, and hasn’t banned state officials from even discussing the idea, unlike poor man’s Voldemort, Rick Scott.