Gov. DeSantis defends his COVID vaccine strategy as Biden administration takes on pandemic

Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke during a news conference in Vero Beach on Jan. 26, 2021. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis faces a difficult period of adjustment to the new administration in Washington, particularly regarding priorities for administering the COVID-19 vaccines.

Or, perhaps, President Joe Biden’s team is having trouble adjusting to him.

During a news conference in Vero Beach Tuesday, the Republican governor, who’d been one of the strongest backers of Donald Trump’s COVID policies, defended his own record on the coronavirus, including his insistence on reserving still-scarce vaccines for people aged 65 and up.

“We’re not going to divert second doses away from seniors,” DeSantis said.

The governor defended Florida’s record compared to nine other large states: California, Texas, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio, and Michigan.

As of Monday evening, the governor’s own analysis showed Florida ranking first among those states in doses per 100,000 people.

But the bragging point was not true as of Tuesday morning, when the governor spoke outside a Publix store. Fresh data showed Florida ranking third among those states, with 7,193 doses administered per 100,000 people. That lagged behind New York, with 7,291 per 100,000 and Michigan with 7,284, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Keep in mind that the governor’s analysis is not the whole picture.

Looking at all 50 states and Washington, D.C., Florida ranks 18th in doses administered per 100,000 people.

And in an analysis of the percentage of doses distributed to states compared to doses administered, Florida stands at about 53 percent, based on the CDC data. That figure reflects 2.9 million doses distributed to Florida compared to about 1.5 million doses administered, as of Tuesday.

Nationwide, the average is 55 percent — so, Florida lands close to the average.

It’s better than California has done, to name one example, at 47.5 percent of doses administered, but not as good as Texas, at 58.7 percent. The figure for New York was about 59 percent. Pennsylvania was just below 50 percent.

DeSantis was responding during the news conference to comments delivered on Monday by Jen Psaki, press secretary to President Joe Biden.

A Florida reporter had asked her during a press briefing what the president thought about DeSantis’ recent comparison of Biden’s plan to establish clinics administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the states to “FEMA camps.”

That was a reference to an old conspiracy theory you can read about here.

Since Trump left office, problems have emerged with his Operation Warp Speed vaccine development and distribution program — and distribution centers have been forced to stop taking appointments at least temporarily because of shortages.

DeSantis has been arguing that Florida already has a robust distribution network and has faulted the federal government for failure to send more vaccine.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki speaks during a daily press briefing at the White House on Jan. 25, 2021. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Psaki said: “And I will note — because we’re data first here, fact first here — they’ve only distributed about 50 percent of the vaccines that they have been given in Florida. So, clearly, they have a good deal of the vaccine. That supply will need to continue to increase as they are able to effectively reach people across the state.”

DeSantis added Tuesday that Psaki’s comment ignored that any unadministered vaccine is reserved for second doses according to the protocol for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

“The implication is, you should be giving those doses away to other people. That’s not the way the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] has prescribed it,” DeSantis said.

“We are No. 1 by far with the number of seniors that have been able to be vaccinated, and we have the through-put that, if we can get more first doses given to Florida, we would be able to do that much more that much quickly,” he added.

“The possibilities really are endless and it’s just contingent on getting more of those first doses of the vaccine. But we are going to have second doses for senior citizens. If the White House is suggesting that we shouldn’t be doing that, I think that that’s not a good suggestion.”

DeSantis later posted a tweet making much the same point.

Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, and the only Democrat serving on the independently elected Florida Cabinet, also chimed in, via a fundraising appeal on Tuesday, referencing the 50 percent figure.

Fried
Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers/Florida Phoenix

She’s been a harsh critic of DeSantis’ COVID management, which closely followed Trump’s lead in resisting any statewide mandate to wear masks against viral transmission and importing medical figures without expertise in immunology to promote a “herd immunity” strategy — essentially, letting the coronavirus run its course among younger people while shielding vulnerable elders.

“It’s clear that, in Florida, we need all the help we can get,” Fried wrote.

“Floridians are desperate to get vaccinated. Many seniors and those who are immunocompromised still need appointments. Black communities are getting vaccinated at a much lower rate than white communities. Without hesitation, the governor should accept assistance from President Biden.”

The state has enlisted Publix pharmacies as vaccine distribution centers, most recently in Indian River and St. Lucie counties, an expansion that will bring to 261 the number of Publix stores involved.

Additional doses are administered through hospitals, county health clinics, state-run drive-through sites, and churches and community centers.

According to the governor, Publix has been getting around 70,000 of the 266,000 doses per week the state has been receiving of late.

“They’re doing 50 to 100 shots at each store per day, so they can run through that pretty quickly,” he said.

“Again, whether you get it at a drive-through site, whether you get it at your local Publix,” he continued, “the important thing is that people are getting shots. We have the capacity; if we got more first doses, we could add a lane to a drive-through site. That’s very easy to do.”

The state also could bolster supplies to hospitals and county health departments, he said.

About those FEMA clinics — DeSantis has suggested it might take too long to set them up when the state already has a distribution network and that doing so might divert attention from shipping vaccine.