Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, with his presidential ambitions looming large, has been boasting about his pandemic playbook as a game-changer. Indeed, he has spun a tale of valiantly pushing back against masks and questioning vaccine safety while swiftly reopening schools, businesses, and beaches. The crux of his narrative hinges on a supposed balance between safeguarding Florida’s economy and protecting the elderly and vulnerable. However, a new study published in the prestigious Science journal suggests a stark contrast to this narrative.
According to this comprehensive analysis of “excess mortality,” the actual COVID-related deaths in rural Florida and the rest of the country were significantly higher than what the official records showed. In Florida, central and rural counties faced a devastating surge in mortality in the second year of the pandemic. This was despite the availability of testing and vaccines and reflects poorly on DeSantis’s purported success story.
Florida, the third in the nation for total COVID deaths, sadly failed to adequately respond to the pandemic, says Andrew C. Stokes, a sociologist and demographer at Boston University and a co-author of the study. The deeper you delve into county-level data, the more the cracks in the Floridian ‘success story’ widen.
The researchers deduced “excess deaths” by comparing the total recorded deaths from April 2020 to February 2022 with the usual death rates expected in the same period. This method, according to Stokes, provides a more precise picture of the pandemic’s impact, especially in rural areas where COVID data reporting is spotty and fewer patients die in healthcare facilities.
Rural corners of the country face additional challenges, with elected coroners who lack medical expertise or the means to investigate causes of death accurately. This potential for bias is further exacerbated when political figures, like Trump and DeSantis, downplay the pandemic, dismiss data experts, and mislead the public for political gain.
These “excess deaths” also account for deaths indirectly tied to the pandemic, such as those arising from hospital avoidance due to virus fears or a dramatic spike in fatal drug overdoses. At the same time, it’s important to note that some standard disease death counts, like flu, might have been reduced due to COVID precautions.
The study found almost 1.2 million excess deaths during the pandemic’s first two years in the U.S. This number stands in stark contrast to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report of about 1.1 million COVID deaths. In the second pandemic year alone, when Congress had begun pumping billions of dollars into states for testing and vaccines, an estimated 544,194 people lost their lives, reflected in the excess death tally.
Rural health was severely impacted during the pandemic, the report highlights. Despite the availability of vaccines, the U.S. witnessed a sustained excess mortality in the second year of the pandemic, contrary to the recovery seen in Western Europe. It laid bare the deep inequalities in healthcare access and quality faced by lower-income people and people of color.
Alarmingly, the rural South experienced a tragic surge in excess mortality during the 2021 Delta wave, highlighting the detrimental effects of long-standing failures in state policies and insufficient support for rural health infrastructure. Florida’s refusal to expand Medicaid to cover more low-income patients worsened the situation. Rural communities, including Black communities, suffered heavily, further emphasizing the need for equity in healthcare access.
The story of the pandemic’s second year is also a story of increased white mortality rates due to a mixture of partisanship and misinformation. Stokes stressed, “The [racial] disparities declined in the second year, but not because rates improved noticeably for Black and Hispanic populations. It was more that white death rates got worse.”
Native American reservations, which are often remote and chronically underfunded when it comes to public health, also saw a sharp rise in excess deaths. The COVID virus, initially rampant in Northeastern cities in 2020, had by July 2021 caused higher rates of excess mortality in nonmetropolitan regions of the West and South, including Florida.
When compared to states like Massachusetts, where pandemic restrictions were more robust, vaccination rates higher, and healthcare more accessible for the underprivileged, Florida’s COVID response fell woefully short, especially during the Delta wave.
Sadly, Florida saw a surge in deaths, particularly in rural areas where excess deaths shot up disproportionately. Stokes makes it clear, “One way to really highlight that policy failure in Florida is to compare Florida during the Delta wave to any state in the mid-Atlantic or New England during the Delta wave.”
DeSantis’s campaign was unresponsive to requests for comments on this issue. In stark contrast to his claims of pandemic success, the reality painted by the data underscores the urgent need for a more equitable, data-driven, and public health-centered approach to managing crises such as these.