Earlier this month, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved a new round of Covid-19 boosters in time for what I’m calling “gross season” –that time of the year when we see an uptick in illnesses including the seasonal flu, R.S.V., and the common cold. Getting vaccinated against these illnesses is the smart thing to do, both for your own health and especially because it makes you a good neighbor helping to protect others from getting seriously ill, including older people or those who are immunocompromised.
So, why is Florida recommending that its residents not take the new Covid-19 boosters? The data show that cases of Covid-19 have been on the rise this month, although it’s not clear if they’ll continue to rise this fall and winter. The good news is that hospitalizations and deaths due to Covid-19 are declining. It means that Covid-19 may be becoming another virus that we now have to live with such as the seasonal flu. But there is some bad news, too: while most of us may not be hospitalized or die as a result of Covid-19, others will get seriously ill or die, due to their age or because they are immunocompromised. From a public health perspective, it is a very strong argument why you should get a Covid booster vaccination this season – just as you do against the seasonal flu.
What’s going on with Florida?
Florida is a state notorious in recent years for politicizing science-based decisions on Covid-19 and other matters in favor of positions that resonate with an anti-science political base. A new report released today, Safeguarding Science in State Agencies, by the Brennan Center for Justice and the Union of Concerned Scientists, examines some Florida cases in which state agencies have politicized science-based decisions. For example, during the Covid-19 pandemic, Florida state officials withheld the list of deaths due to Covid-19 compiled by the state’s Medical Examiners Commission. Florida’s health department also failed to release data on Covid-19 infections in nursing homes until a group of news organizations moved to sue to obtain the information. In another example, Florida’s surgeon general altered scientific data in an official report to justify his position that young men should not take Covid-19 vaccines.
As I have often noted, politicizing critical science-based decisions impacts public health and safety; these Covid-19 cases amply illustrate this point. Research shows that more people died in states and counties where Covid-19 science was politicized than in states where it wasn’t (i.e., where vaccines were embraced with open arms). In fact, the data indicate that disparity may operate more widely beyond Covid-19: Overall mortality appears to be increasing in states where science-based policy decisions are polarized.
Recommendations for states
Of course, Florida isn’t the only state politicizing science-based decisions. The new report offers many other examples of egregious attacks on science in California, Texas, New York, and other states as well. And there are likely many examples the report misses, especially considering that there are just two (that’s right, TWO) state agencies across the entire continental United States that currently have publicly available policies protecting state government scientists and their work from political interference (what we commonly refer to as “scientific integrity”).
So, what do we do to protect science-based government decisionmaking processes from political interference at the state level? Our report offers many recommendations. Here are some of the most important:
- State agencies with science-based missions should have scientific integrity policies that establish standards and safeguards to ensure that scientific research adheres to recognized professional standards and is free from political interference.
- State agencies should designate personnel with relevant expertise and appropriate insulation from political officials to provide routine scientific integrity training to agency personnel, administer the policies, and investigate and resolve disputes.
- State agencies should make state-funded research and data accessible to the public immediately upon completion or publication in a scholarly journal.
- When conducting science-based decision-making, state agencies should adhere to a clearly defined “best available science” standard that focuses on the quality and objectivity of information, the use of publicly available data and peer review, and clear documentation and communication of the risks and uncertainties in scientific analysis.
There is clearly a lot of work to be done. Decisions by state governments impact the health and safety of all their residents so we should push them to use the best available science and not politicize it. The good news is that there is already a powerful blueprint for states to follow. The federal government has made significant progress on scientific integrity, especially over the past two years. By January 2024, federal agencies will have in place the strongest scientific integrity policies we have ever seen. But the lack of protections at the state level lets us know that the work is not done, especially when state government officials in Florida and elsewhere are ignoring federal scientific guidance. We’ll be pushing state governments to begin protecting science and we hope that you will talk to your state level officials to urge them to do the same.