COVID-19 is moving back into the news, a trend that could have a political impact on the Republican primary.

In particular, the issue is being weaponized by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) as he seeks to make up lost ground against former President Trump.

COVID hospitalizations have been rising at a rapid clip in the United States for about six weeks. 

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were almost 19,000 COVID-related hospital admissions in the latest week for which data is available, ending Sept. 2.

The latest figures are close to a threefold increase from the roughly 6,500 hospitalizations related to COVID in the week ending July 8.

This rise, in turn, led the CDC to recommend Tuesday that virtually everyone, with the exception of infants younger than 6 months, should get an updated vaccine. Those shots are intended to ameliorate any serious consequences from the newest subvariant of the omicron strain of COVID-19.

There is no suggestion of a mandate regarding the new vaccination. And COVID hospitalizations, despite their recent rise, are at a tiny fraction of their level during the peak of the pandemic.

Even so, the COVID issue has become a more salient one in the political sphere than it has been for a long time.

DeSantis pushed back hard Wednesday against the CDC recommendations, urging anyone under the age of 65 to not get vaccinated. 

DeSantis asserted that he was not going to let public health bodies “use healthy Floridians as guinea pigs for new booster shots that have not been proven to be safe or effective.”

DeSantis also claimed that his state would be “the first state in the nation to stand up and provide guidance based on truth, not Washington edicts.”

The Food and Drug Administration, in a Monday statement, said that it “is confident in the safety and effectiveness of these updated vaccines.”

DeSantis’s comments are reflective of the skepticism he has shown toward federal policies on COVID-19 for some time. But they are also part of an attempt to find an exploitable vulnerability in Trump’s political armor.

Trump leads DeSantis by about 40 points in the current national weighted polling average maintained by data site FiveThirtyEight. That is a far wider gap than Trump enjoyed earlier in the year, before DeSantis launched his campaign.

But Trump came under pressure this week during an interview with Megyn Kelly, whose show is broadcast on SiriusXM. 

Kelly seemed dubious of Trump’s reasons for not firing Dr. Anthony Fauci as the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases while in office, as many on the right wanted. She added, “You made him a star … This is the criticism of you, that you made him the face of the White House Coronavirus Task Force.”

“Do you think so?” Trump responded.

Kelly went on to note that Fauci had received a presidential commendation before Trump left office.

“I don’t know who gave him the commendation,” Trump claimed.

It was a rare moment where Trump looked hesitant, even weak, while confronted with a critique from his right.

On Thursday, the main super PAC supporting DeSantis, Never Back Down, released a new ad that featured excerpts from the Trump-Kelly interview as well as clips from the past of Trump calling Fauci “great” and “a good man.”

DeSantis’s attacks on Trump over COVID have developed a new edge. In a Thursday Fox News Radio interview with Jimmy Failla, the Florida governor mocked Trump’s comments about the commendation for Fauci. 

“Is this the immaculate commendation or something like that? Did this just happen out of thin air?” DeSantis asked.

DeSantis also contended that Trump “would do the same thing all over again, if put in that position, and that would be disastrous for our country.”

Trump advisers have worried for some time that his record on COVID could be a vulnerability in a GOP primary — despite the fact a vaccine was developed with remarkable speed during his administration.

Trump’s support for lockdowns and sporadic words of support for Fauci, with whom he had a contentious relationship, sit uneasily with the current sentiments of the GOP base.

An Economist/YouGov poll from August 2022, the month in which Fauci announced he would retire, found that 75 percent of Republicans had an unfavorable view of the scientist, while only 13 percent had a favorable view of him. Those figures offered a dramatic contrast to the views of the overall population, where the plurality view of Fauci was favorable, 43 percent to 39 percent.

Earlier still, in December 2021, Trump was booed at an event with commentator Bill O’Reilly when he revealed he had received a booster shot.

“I do think it is an issue where Trump has some vulnerability relative to DeSantis, whose policies were more clear,” said Matt Mackowiak, chair of the Travis County, Texas, Republican Party. 

Mackowiak noted that DeSantis had become so identified with opposition to mandates and lockdowns that, in a Republican primary, “he has a comparative advantage with most other candidates.”

But Mackowiak suggested the political impact of COVID to the GOP could be limited.

And other voices put that point of view even more strongly.

Alluding to the fact that DeSantis did, in fact, order a lockdown in Florida early in the pandemic, GOP strategist Barry Bennett said, “He makes it sound like he was a fighter on COVID from Day One, and that’s just not the case.”

Bennett, a senior adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign who worked for Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s short-lived bid this cycle, added that he was dubious that anything but a self-inflicted misstep could thwart Trump in his quest for the GOP nomination.

“I don’t think there is anything that the rest of the field can do to beat Trump,” Bennett said. “Only Trump can beat Trump.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.