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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is upping his game in his war on public health. Not only has he threatened to bankrupt local governments that mandate the COVID vaccine, he just stood there as a local government employee in his state said that vaccines “change your RNA.” (They don’t.)
DeSantis spoke at a rally in Alachua County, Florida, on Monday to announce his plans to impose fines on local governments mandating that their employees be vaccinated, as the city of Gainesville—home to the University of Florida—and other local governments, such as Miami-Dade and Leon counties, have done.
"If a government agency in the state of Florida forces a vaccine as a condition to employment, that violates Florida law, and you will face a $5,000 fine for every single violation," DeSantis said. "And so if you look at places here in Alachua County, like the city of Gainesville, that's millions and millions of dollars potentially in fines."
Gainesville said it would continue to mandate vaccines in an email to NBC Miami.
“It is our belief that as an employer we retain the right to require vaccination as a condition of employment," city spokesperson Shelby Taylor said.
DeSantis signed legislation in May barring governments and businesses from requiring constituents and customers to be vaccinated. The legislation, however, does not ban cities and counties from requiring their own workers to be vaccinated, as CBS News noted.
During the rally, DeSantis shared the stage with several speakers, including Darris Friend, a Gainesville city employee since 1999. Friend said that his opposition was “not about the vaccine, it’s about mandatory vaccination,” then falsely claimed that the vaccines change your genetic makeup.
“The vaccine changes your RNA,” Friend said, “so for me, that’s a problem.” As DeSantis stood next to him, shuffling his feet, Friend added: “It’s about freedom and liberty.”
A DeSantis spokesperson pushed back on the notion that the governor co-signed Friend’s comments about the vaccine.
“The governor has never said the vaccine changes your RNA, and nobody who has seen his 50+ public appearances promoting vaccination throughout Florida this year would think that is the governor’s position,” Christina Pushaw told the Miami Herald.
“The speaker whose remarks included that comment was at the press conference in his capacity as a member of a lawsuit against the city government’s extreme overreach.”
On Tuesday, DeSantis claimed he didn't correct Friend's false vaccine claim because he didn't hear him say it—even though he was standing just a few feet away as Friend spoke.
“Honestly, I don’t even remember him saying that, so it’s not anything I’ve said,” DeSantis told an Orlando Sentinel reporter Tuesday, adding that data shows "you’re much less likely to be hospitalized or die if you’re vaccinated.”
Friend wasn’t the only speaker to spew vaccine misinformation, however. Another city employee, Christine Damm, said her mother recently died and that she “will not put my children through the possibility of losing another maternal figure in their lives,” implying the vaccine was deadly.
While some serious side effects have been reported, these effects have been incredibly rare, and the vaccine has proven to be both safe and effective at keeping people out of the hospital and alive—even through the Delta variant.
Over the past two months, Florida has been hit with its worst wave of COVID-19 so far, and though hospitalizations have dipped in recent weeks, COVID-19 patients continue to occupy more than 40 percent of ICU beds in the state.
DeSantis has nevertheless chosen to focus his energy on stalling local governments’ attempts at mitigation, including banning school districts from requiring masks in schools, as teachers have continued to get sick and even die from COVID-19.
DeSantis has even begun to withhold the salaries of school administrators and board members in districts with mask mandates, forcing a confrontation with the Biden administration and a legal battle, which is moving through the Florida courts.