Doses of COVID-19 vaccine went to the first members of the general public in Florida on Tuesday — elderly residents of The Villages who were administered the shots during a news conference hosted by Gov. Ron DeSantis.
Medical workers inoculated around a dozen or so elderly people at the news conference with the Pfizer version at a University of Florida Health facility in the sprawling retirement community. The governor looked on approvingly.
The vaccine was administered to a few health care workers, as well, in keeping with DeSantis’ prioritization of the initial COVID shots to them and the elderly, particularly residents of nursing homes. They’ll have to return in a few weeks for a second dose.
It wasn’t clear how many people got vaccinated in total in the solidly Republican community, to which Republican DeSantis has returned frequently to highlight his COVID response, or whether the shots continued after the cameras left. The governor’s press office has not yet replied to a question about the numbers.
“It’s exciting,” the governor said. “Got a lot of work to do but I think that there’s a good, strong light at the end of the tunnel.”
He suggested that additional key workers, including police, firefighters, and teachers, could be vaccinated once the Johnson & Johnson vaccine wins U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, perhaps in January.
“Obviously, any teacher who is elderly would be included in the overall elderly population” eligible for the shots, he said.
DeSantis has emphasized that older people have proven most vulnerable to serious complications and death from COVID infections. He declared Monday that he would ignore a CDC advisory panel’s recommendation that essential workers receive vaccines ahead of the elderly and reiterated the point Tuesday.
He even plans to wait himself until the vaccine is more broadly available to the public.
“In Florida, we’ve got to put our parents and grandparents first, and that’s what we’re going to be doing, and we’re going to work like hell to be able to get all the vaccine out to elderly who want it.”
The governor didn’t define what he meant by elderly, but did note that Florida is home to more than 4.4 million people aged 65 and above and more than 3 million aged 75 and above.
“We are not going to have over the next six weeks 4.4 million doses for individuals,” he acknowledged.
“What I would say to the elderly population: It’s going to be reserved for you, but not everyone’s going to be able to do it on Day One. It’s going to take some time to make sure everybody has access,” he added.
“But this is something that, over the next six weeks, eight weeks, we should be able to make huge progress on.”
Federal officials have sent to Florida nearly 180,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine that were distributed through five hospital groups, Including U.S. Health, with the equipment to store the material as ultra-cold temperatures.
Additionally, the state has sent public health “strike forces” into more than 100 nursing homes in Pinellas and Broward counties to vaccinate residents and staff. CVS and Walgreens also will administer vaccine at nursing homes.
Another 127,000 Pfizer doses arrived this week and officials expect 367,000 doses Moderna Inc.’s vaccine and will distribute them statewide through hospitals and public health departments, DeSantis said, with “the bulk of that” going to the elderly.
“We now have this light at the end of the tunnel for our elderly where you’re going to have, in relatively short order, access to a safe and effective vaccine,” he said.
A reporter asked whether the state would prioritize doses for full-time residents ahead of people who live for part of the year elsewhere.
“We have not necessarily done that,” DeSantis said. “We’ll see.”
As for younger people with illnesses that put them at high risk for serious or deadly complications, they’ll have to wait behind the elderly, DeSantis said.
“The problem is, how do you administer that. Do you want to have the hospitals having to slice and dice everyone’s co-morbidity?”
DeSantis has repeatedly emphasize that taking the vaccine is strictly voluntary, and surveys suggest resistance to vaccination, particularly among African Americans.
The Florida Department of Health reported Tuesday 1,223,015 COVID-19 infections and 20,754 Florida resident deaths.
A New York Times analysis shows that Florida has the 3rd highest number of infections across the 50 states. But Florida’s infection rate — infections per 100,000 people — ranks 26th of the 50 states.