Story by Angie DiMichele, South Florida Sun Sentinel • 23h
ORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — More than a year after the Florida Supreme Court granted Gov. Ron DeSantis’ request to empanel a statewide grand jury to investigate “criminal or wrongful activity” related to COVID-19 vaccines, the body released its first report and said its probe is “nowhere near complete.”
Their 33-page report released late Friday said “lockdowns were not a good trade” and that “we have never had sound evidence of (masks’) effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2 transmission,” among other conclusions.
“In a way, this Grand Jury has allowed us to do something that most Americans simply do not have the time, access, or wherewithal to do: Follow the science,” the report said.
Conclusions in the report on masks contradict recommendations from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC’s guidance says research shows masks are effective in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and recommends as of late January that people with symptoms, people who have tested positive, and people who have been exposed to the virus should wear masks when indoors in public.
The report discussed whether lockdowns, mask mandates and social-distancing guidelines “had a significant impact on the overall risk” of COVID-19.
Among the body’s conclusions:
—Jurisdictions that enforced lockdowns “tended to end up with higher overall excess mortality.”
—“There have always been legitimate questions around the impracticality of individual adherence to mask recommendations, but once it became clear that the primary transmission vector of SARS-CoV-2 was via aerosol, their potential efficacy was further diminished.”
—Social distancing is not “nearly as important … as it is whether they are in an interior or exterior environment and whether that environment is subject to adequate airflow,” information that they said is still “missing from the CDC’s Social Distancing Guidelines.”
—Mask mandates, social distancing guidelines and shutdowns were “not administered based on the best available scientific data.”
—“In fact, many public health recommendations and their attendant mandates departed significantly from scientific research” that was available to everyone at the time.
The report said the grand jury talked with doctors, scientists and professors “with a broad range of viewpoints.”
Kenneth Goodman, founder and director of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, said the report raises questions about which professionals the grand jury spoke with and how those professionals were vetted.
“Using the language of science to promote mysticism is particularly egregious,” Goodman said.
In an update on the CDC’s website on Thursday, the agency said their new data shows updated COVID-19 vaccines were effective and advises that everyone ages 6 months and older should get the updated 2023–24 COVID-19 vaccines.
There are 17.8 million people in Florida who have received at least one dose of the vaccine, CDC data shows, about 83% of the state’s population. About 70% completed the first series of vaccines. Only about 12% of the state’s population has received an updated booster dose.
DeSantis and State Surgeon General Joseph Ladapo routinely have voiced skepticism about the COVID-19 vaccines. Ladapo in September advised people under the age of 65 against getting the new booster when it was approved.
Last month, Ladapo called for a halt in using the vaccines, discussing in a statement a refuted theory that they may be “delivering contaminant DNA into human cells.”
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in a letter to Ladapo last December refuted his concerns about the safety and efficacy of vaccines.
“The challenge we continue to face is the ongoing proliferation of misinformation and disinformation about these vaccines which results in vaccine hesitancy that lowers vaccine uptake,” Dr. Peter Marks, director of the Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research for the FDA, wrote to Ladapo. “Given the dramatic reduction in the risk of death, hospitalization and serious illness afforded by the vaccines, lower vaccine uptake is contributing to the continued death and serious illness toll of COVID-19.”
A University of South Florida/Florida Atlantic University public survey last August showed that notable numbers of Floridians incorrectly believe that vaccines can cause DNA alterations or believe a conspiracy theory that they contain microchips. Republicans were more likely than Democrats and independents to believe vaccine misinformation, the survey found.
DeSantis has time and again fought against the federal mandates that he and his voter-base viewed as governmental overreach while portraying Florida’s policies as “pro-freedom.”
DeSantis’ office in a news release in March 2023, marking three years since the start of the pandemic, criticized President Joe Biden’s administration’s handling of the pandemic and touted Florida’s economic and tourism statistics. DeSantis in the statement said the federal measures were about “exercising control at the expense of the American economy and the American way of life.”
“It’s just important to say, the experts that designed these policies and that were hectoring everybody — they were wrong about almost everything,” DeSantis said at a March 16 news conference held in Polk County with Ladapo.
The report issued Friday emphasized that the grand jury is apolitical, diverse in ethnicity, gender and politics and has “no specific agenda with respect to these issues.”
Despite that assertion, Goodman said, “it would still be nice to have a little transparency about who selected their experts” and the names of those experts.
“It’s Florida, and what we’ve become used to in Florida is people with an agenda finding a way to put their thumb on the scientific scale,” he said.
Jurors summoned were from the Fifth, Sixth, Tenth, Twelfth and Thirteenth Judicial Circuits, according to the report, and were randomly selected. The body’s primary legal adviser is Statewide Prosecutor Nicholas B. Cox, who was appointed by Attorney General Ashley Moody and who has been overseeing the voter fraud cases moving through the courts since DeSantis announced the arrests of some 20 people in August 2022 for allegedly voting illegally.
The majority of registered voters in all but one of the 14 counties that make up those circuits are registered Republicans, according to Division of Elections records.
Like Goodman, Dr. Leslie Beitsch, courtesy faculty professor at Florida State University’s College of Medicine, said the report raises transparency questions about those who did and did not appear to the grand jury and called it “far from an unbiased effort.”
Beitsch said it appears to him that the report was written by “someone who has a great deal of biostatistics and epidemiology knowledge and beyond the bachelor’s level.” He said the data discussed in the report was chosen to best suit their position.
There is no expert consensus on the conclusions drawn in the report, Beitsch said.
“From just reading this, this doesn’t present itself as a neutral, apolitical document of a diverse group selected at random,” he said. “It reads very much like a pointed perspective of a selected group … I don’t see neutrality here. And I think an unbiased report by a group of scientists would be helpful.”
He pointed out what he called a “rich irony,” where it says early on in the report: “Follow the science.”
“And I think that’s a good admonition – I think we should all follow it, but I think this is a partial presentation of the science that’s cherry-picked …” Beitsch said.
DeSantis’ office in a news release Friday evening pointed out a section of the report that said officials from the CDC, the FDA and the U.S. Army did not give testimony, putting “roadblocks” in the grand jury’s investigation.
Other potential witnesses chose not to testify, some “citing potential professional or personal consequences” from being involved with the investigation, the report said.
The grand jury explained that DeSantis’ involvement ended once he petitioned the state Supreme Court and that the body “is insulated from the influence of the political actors that caused us to be impaneled.”
“Occasionally, prospective witnesses have raised concerns about the underlying fairness of this body, which — for the reasons described above — we believe to be unfounded,” the report later said.
The Supreme Court’s order stated the grand jury can investigate “pharmaceutical manufacturers (and their executive officers) and other medical associations or organizations” involved in almost any way with the use of “vaccines purported to prevent COVID-19 infection, symptoms, and transmission.”
The order also said the grand jury could also look into “other criminal activity or wrongdoing that the statewide grand jury uncovers during the course of the investigation” or anything that’s part of an “organized criminal conspiracy.”
The report did not include any recommendations, but the grand jury could make some in future reports.
“The Statewide Grand Jury only has the power to recommend solutions; we cannot enact them. It will be up to state legislators, federal lawmakers or even the people themselves to ensure that our efforts are not wasted,” the report said. “Moreover, we concur that if violations of Florida criminal law occurred with respect to COVID-19 vaccines, they must be addressed by the appropriate authorities.”
The grand jury remains in session and Cox is scheduling future witnesses to appear, the report said. It was signed by Christopher C. Sabella, chief judge for the Thirteenth Judicial Circuit.
(Information from the Orlando Sentinel was used in this report.)