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Ron DeSantis and GOP rivals push COVID vaccine skepticism on Iowa Caucus campaign trail

In an Iowa sports bar on a dreary Saturday morning, Grimes resident Mike Pauk posed a final audience question to GOP presidential candidate Ron DeSantis.

“When are the people like , hospital administrators, when are they going to be held accountable? Not getting fired, not driving around in limos — when are they going to be in cuffs?” Pauk asked. “We hung seven Nazi doctors, including Karl Brandt, for doing far less.”

DeSantis took the question, gliding past the mention of the death penalty and the accusation that Fauci, the former director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and civilian hospital staff had committed crimes more serious than Nazi war criminals.

“They lied to this country,” the Florida governor replied, echoing anti-vaccine talking points, including several that have been discredited. “They lied to this country about gain-of-function research, they lied to this country about COVID coming from a lab. They were wrong about lockdowns. They were wrong about forced masks. They were wrong about school closures. They were wrong about mRNA COVID shots. They were wrong on all these things.”

Republican presidential candidate Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a meet and greet, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023, in Creston, Iowa.

On the presidential campaign trail, DeSantis has held up his record as Florida’s governor during the COVID-19 pandemic, touting the state’s relatively early reopening and its rejection of mask and vaccine mandates.

DeSantis promised that if he is elected president, there would be a “reckoning” for public health authorities who advised the federal government’s pandemic response.

“There’s a lot of people running. I’m the only one that is interested in this issue,” DeSantis told a crowd of about 50 in Creston, Iowa. “Biden is not, Trump’s not. None of the other people are interested in it. But here’s the thing: If we don’t bring that reckoning, they are going to try to do it to this country again.”

DeSantis, however, isn’t the only Republican presidential candidate to tap into the ongoing conservative backlash to COVID.

Several candidates, including U.S. Sen. Tim Scott and former President , have warned of another wave of closures or mask mandates, even as state and federal officials say no such measures are expected.

With this rhetoric, DeSantis and his rivals have distanced themselves from their own leadership in 2020, when they followed guidance from the federal government and spoke in favor of social distancing, masking and newly released vaccines.

In particular, the focus on relitigating COVID in the 2024 election puts Trump and former on the defensive as they attempt to justify their administration’s response in 2020 while tiptoeing around its most controversial aspect.

“We did a great job on that, with the ventilators and all the therapeutics and Regeneron,” Trump said at a September event in Maquoketa, referencing an antibody cocktail that was developed to combat COVID-19 and was reportedly taken by Trump himself when he contracted the virus.

Notably absent from his list of accomplishments: Operation Warp Speed and the race to develop the COVID-19 vaccine, which became available in the final months of his presidency and has since become the center of a host of conspiracy theories.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event in Maquoketa, Iowa, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2023.

Ron DeSantis, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and take far-right flank on pandemic issues

DeSantis rose to national prominence as a conservative governor during the pandemic, touting his reopening of schools and businesses.

Waiting in line to enter a DeSantis event in Cedar Rapids, 41-year-old Josh Freund said he’s supported DeSantis “since the beginning.”

“I run a small business, and he didn’t shut down the businesses like every other state in the country,” said Freund, who runs a hardwood floor installation business in Cedar Rapids. “I really like that, and I appreciate that.”

Although he was publicly vaccinated and encouraged Floridians to receive the shot, DeSantis and his surgeon general have since become skeptical of the safety of the vaccine, advising people under 65 not to get the booster shots. Last December, DeSantis requested a state-level grand jury probe of vaccine manufacturers to investigate potential “crimes and wrongdoing committed against Floridians related to the COVID-19 vaccine.”

More than 676 million COVID vaccine doses have been administered in the U.S.

They have proven safe overall, CDC data shows, despite short-term side effects and some cases of myocarditis, a swelling of the heart, largely among older adolescent males and young men. Myocarditis occurred most often after the second vaccine dose and was not seen after the most recent booster.

About 5 people per every 1 million vaccinated suffered a severe allergic reaction to the shot.

More: Updated COVID-19 vaccine recommended for everyone; old, young, immunocompromised will benefit most

Republican candidate Vivek Ramaswamy speaks broadly to voters about his distrust of the federal government and specifically bureaucracies within the executive branch, which he calls “the deep state.” He’s proposed firing more than 1 million civil servants and eliminating several programs and agencies, including the Centers for Disease Control.

At an August fundraiser for U.S. Rep. Ashley Hinson, Ramaswamy called on the government to tell “the truth” about COVID.

“They think we can’t handle the truth about COVID-19, that we can’t handle the truth about where the virus came from. That we can’t handle the truth about vaccine mandates or lockdowns,” he said.

Ramaswamy took two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, but he told NBC News in September that he regrets it — although his wife, who is a surgeon, said she does not regret her own vaccination.

Yet, both DeSantis and Ramaswamy supported pandemic mitigation measures in 2020. In Florida, DeSantis closed schools and businesses for several weeks, and he encouraged everyone to get the vaccine when it became available.

Ramaswamy’s past social media posts show he supported the 2021 rollout of vaccines — “we should aim to safely vaccinate everyone who is eligible,” he tweeted — and a 2020 proposal by U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders to provide masks to all Americans.

Perhaps the most outspoken and consistent voice on COVID pandemic response is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who began his presidential campaign as a Democrat and now is running as an independent.

Kennedy, who opposed vaccines before the COVID-19 pandemic, is a leading voice in the anti-vaccine movement. Health experts have called his work dangerous, and members of his family have condemned him for spreading misinformation.

Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. speaks at the Des Moines Register Political Soapbox at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 12 in Des Moines. At the time, he was running as a Democrat but is now running as an independent.

During COVID-19, Kennedy criticized the government’s handling of the pandemic and vaccines — even losing his Instagram account when he was accused of spreading misinformation. He criticized the lockdowns, suggesting things were worse for Americans than they were for Anne Frank, the Jewish teenager who hid with her family during the Holocaust and died in a concentration camp.

Kennedy later apologized for the comments.

Pauk, the 56-year-old Grimes resident who pressed DeSantis about holding Fauci and hospital administrators accountable, said he was choosing between DeSantis, Kennedy and Trump for 2024. Pauk claimed that the COVID-19 vaccines and Remdesivir, an FDA-approved COVID treatment, killed thousands of people, a claim that has been widely debunked.

“Kennedy is a two-issue candidate for me: vaccine and getting rid of the deep state,” Pauk said. “I don’t agree with RFK on 90% of things, but I think he’s actually an honorable person.”

Donald Trump, Mike Pence defend their COVID response, sidestep conspiracy theories

As DeSantis and others decry the government’s response to COVID-19, two contestants in the Republican primary have a more careful line to tread: Trump and Pence, who led the country through the first year of the pandemic.

Trump frequently references his administration’s efforts to curb what he calls the “gift from China” or “China virus” while avoiding specifics that conservatives have increasingly condemned.

In remarks in Maquoketa in mid-September, Trump lamented that his administration didn’t get the recognition it deserved for tackling the virus.

“We haven’t been getting the kind of love on that,” Trump said. “We get a lot of love on the economy, a lot of things, but they never gave us one of the big things.”

The White House’s response to the pandemic’s progression from a threat abroad to a domestic emergency, from late 2019 to spring 2020, has been the target of harsh criticism from Democrats and entire books on the subject.

Some Republicans, too, have come to resent parts of those early months. One attendee of a Pence campaign event in Waverly told the former vice president that the administration “acquiesced to a lot of Dr. Fauci’s demands, a lot of the things that put this country on the wrong track.”

“How do we avoid that situation happening again?” the audience member asked.

Pence quickly said that “China is responsible for the COVID pandemic,” and he noted that it was President Joe Biden, not Trump, “who mandated vaccines.”

Republican presidential candidate former Vice President Mike Pence talks with attendees during a 9/11 remembrance ceremony at the Ankeny Fire Department, Monday, Sept. 11, 2023.

But he also defended the administration’s response to the earliest days of the pandemic, including the initial nationwide shutdown in March 2020.

“What we saw in Italy at the time, at the end of February, was that people were literally dying on gurneys in the hallways of hospitals because they didn’t have the equipment, they didn’t have the supplies, they didn’t have the capacity,” Pence said in Waverly.

“We never wanted that to happen in the United States of America, and so we took a pause for what became 15 days, and then it was longer than that. And I believe that that gave us time to spin up the supplies, to spin up the testing from a standing start, to spin up medical supplies and gowns and ultimately ventilators that would be required for people that became seriously ill.”

After that, Pence said, it was Democratic governors who decided to keep businesses and schools closed for several more months.

“I think going forward we have to think very carefully about how much authority we give to states around the country,” Pence said.

What do GOP presidential candidates agree on? No vaccine mandates and blaming China

Across the GOP presidential field, several COVID stances have become a conservative norm.

DeSantis, Trump, Pence, Scott, Ramaswamy and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have all stated their opposition to mask or vaccine mandates. The Republican establishment also has condemned any closure mandates meant to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

The Republican candidates have also broadly subscribed to a theory that COVID originated in a Chinese laboratory. A declassified intelligence report in June was unable to determine whether illnesses of lab workers in Wuhan, China, were the source of the pandemic.

In March, Haley told Iowans that China should be accountable for the worldwide damage caused by the pandemic.

“I think we need to go and look at the damages, the financial damages that happened, the life loss that happened, and every country in the world needs to know and hold them accountable,” Haley said, according to the Iowa Capital Dispatch. “And they’ve yet to do that, and the U.S. should be leading the charge on that.”

Scott said in a March FOX News appearance that there is “compelling evidence that the Wuhan lab, not nature, is the reason why COVID happened.”

“The more China lies, the more Americans die,” Scott said.

Galen Bacharier, Stephen Gruber-Miller, Phillip Joens, and USA Today contributed reporting.

Katie Akin is a politics reporter for the Register. Reach her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @katie_akin.

This article originally appeared on Des Moines Register: DeSantis, Trump, Ramaswamy campaigns fuel conservative COVID anger