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Friction between Florida's governor and the Biden Administration — plus the state legislature's 'culture' agenda

A nurse enters a monoclonal antibody site. (Marta Lavandier/AP Photo)
(Marta Lavandier/AP Photo)
A nurse enters a monoclonal antibody site.

The fight between Florida Gov. DeSantis and the federal government over COVID-19 hit a new chord this week.

The friction between Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Biden Administration flared up again this week, and it was over COVID-19 again.

On Monday, the Food and Drug Administration pulled the emergency authorization for two monoclonal antibody treatments against the virus after new data show they were not effective against the omicron variant of the virus.

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Gov. DeSantis wasted no time in blasting the decision, calling it "disgusting" in a Monday night statement. On Tuesday, DeSantis continued criticizing the decision.

"This is not the way that you help people. And our view is people have the right to access these treatments. And to revoke it on this basis is just fundamentally wrong," he said.

Monoclonal antibody sites to treat COVID-19 throughout Florida are closed until further notice due to the FDA decision regarding the drugs from Eli Lilly and Regeneron.

The governor has been a vocal and frequent proponent of the monoclonal therapies.

Dr. Bernard Ashby is also a supporter of early COVID treatments. He’s a state leader at the Committee to Protect Health Care. But Ashby says the governor should use the monoclonal sites for drugs that do work against omicron instead of closing them.

"He just packed up his toys and went home. So if you really cared about early COVID-19 treatment he would pursue all options yet his entire focus has only been on Regeneron," Ashby said.

Dr Dwight Reynolds said Regeneron did work for his patients. He’s an emergency medicine doctor based in Coral Springs.

"To take off the table two arsenals that have been extremely important was bothersome to me. I felt that my ability to take care of my patients was being interfered with," he said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the omicron variant makes up almost every coronavirus case in Florida.

"Federal records show that Florida hospitals still have about 10,000 doses of those monoclonal on hand, which means the state probably had several thousand as well," said Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee report Kirby Wilson. "That's not tracked in federal databases, but the state had been sent several thousand of those therapies just last week, and people had appointments to get them."

While the governor wasted no time criticizing the FDA decision and pointing to the Biden White House, the White House did not shy away from criticizing the governor.

"What the FDA is making clear is that these treatments, the ones that they are fighting over, that the governor is fighting over, do not work against omicron and they have side effects," Biden spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "We have sent them twenty seven thousand doses of treatments that are effective against omicron and are effective also against delta, and they are still advocating for treatments that don't work,

Those other treatments from the federal government include two other monoclonal antibody treatments, one made by AstraZeneca and the second made by GlaxoSmithKline. A federal database also lists a combined 26,000 doses of different antiviral pills from Pfizer and Merck.

"The Biden administration — they've engaged," said Politico Florida reporter Gary Fineout. "They've hit back and they've made their opinions known. So both sides seem to think it's worthwhile politically to continue to engage."

While the pandemic may be central to the back-and-forth between DeSantis and the Biden Administration, the friction is not limited to the virus. The governor sent Florida law enforcement personnel to the southern border between Texas and Mexico this summer during a rush of migrant crossings. DeSantis' proposed state budget includes $8 million to hire private companies to transport undocumented immigrants out of Florida. And when the state sanctioned school districts that okayed mask mandates, the federal government stepped in with grant money.

"The only respite we have seen is that in the immediate aftermath of the Surfside catastrophe, the president came to Florida and the governor was there. They did appear side-by-side. There was sort of, for a lack of a better word, a detente during that moment," said Fineout.

The 'culture' agenda

The national anthem at sporting events and books in school libraries — those are just two of the culture issues the Republican-dominated state legislature took up in the last week. They are among a list of issues that include an elections police force, a state militia, workplace training programs and parents rights in public education.

Senate Republicans on Tuesday took a first step toward ramping up scrutiny of the way public schools’ library books and classroom materials are chosen. Senate Education Chairman Joe Gruters said his measure would require elementary schools to publish on their websites all books and materials in their libraries or part of class reading lists.

"The purpose of the bill is to create transparency in the process. It’s not to censor anything. It’s about giving people the opportunity to understand exactly what is being offered to their students, in terms of instructional materials," said Gruters.

Democratic Senator Lori Berman cautioned lawmakers on the panel against opening the door to what she described as censorship. "This is the slippery slope of censorship. We are starting down the path of censorship. It’s an authoritarian action."

Politico Florida reporter Fineout describe education as "the front line" of the political divide thanks to two years of the pandemic. The issue proved pivotal in the 2021 Virginia governor's race where Republican Glenn Youngkin beat former Democratic governor Terry McAuliffe. No Republican had won a statewide race in Virginia in more than 10 years. Youngkin leaned hard on public education, particularly parents rights, something embraced by DeSantis.

"Republicans nationally have seized on this issue," said Fineout. "They look at this and they say, 'Look, we think that we can recapture some of those suburban voters, those suburban moms who, in the waning days of the Trump administration, turned against Republicans.' "

"I think there's been a powerful, pandemic fueled undercurrent of parental rights that is sweeping the country," said Wilson of the Tampa Bay Times. "I think these debates about what we can talk about with kids in schools ... and the line between teaching and indoctrination is all an offshoot of the idea that parents are losing control of their kids to government schools."

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Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.