FL lags big states on vaccinations; DeSantis pledges doses for high-risk younger people (but not inmates)

Gov. Ron DeSantis, in The Villages on Feb. 1, 2021, OKs COVID shots for people with comorbidities but adds: There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen." Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Florida trails other large states in getting its supply of COVID-19 vaccine into people’s arms, having administered 59 percent of the nearly 3.4 million doses the federal government has sent this way, according to data released Monday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

By contrast, Michigan had administered nearly 74 percent of its doses, North Carolina more than 68 percent, Texas 68 percent, New York 65.7 percent, Ohio nearly 65 percent, Georgia 64 percent, Illinois 62 percent, and California 61 percent. Pennsylvania trailed Florida at 57 percent, according to the CDC.

The agency said 315,392 Floridians had completed the two-dose protocols for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which must be administered three to four weeks apart.

The CDC released the updated data on Monday, as Gov. Ron DeSantis promised to commit 30,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine so that hospitals can administer them to people younger than 65 who suffer from medical conditions that render them especially vulnerable to the coronavirus.

But he added that prison inmates are in no way an immediate priority for the new vaccines, notwithstanding that Florida leads the states in inmate COVID deaths, at 205, according to the Marshall Project, which reports on prison conditions.

“Some of these states are vaccinating prisoners instead of seniors. They’re vaccinating drug addicts instead of seniors,” DeSantis said during a news conference in The Villages in central Florida.

With supplies still scarce, “whose priorities are you looking out for? We’re looking out for our parents and grandparents here in Florida. There’s no way you’re going to get some prisoner a vaccine over a senior citizen,” the governor said.

An October state vaccination planning draft made no provision for vaccinating inmates, even those older than 65.

A December update made scant mention of the state prisons, saying only that the Florida Department of Health would “engage with these entities as well as the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice in vaccine planning efforts.”

The Florida Department of Corrections last month said it had identified 4,169 inmates who met the age criteria for receiving shots, the Miami Herald reported.

The corrections department’s press office has not yet replied to a request for information about its policies in this regard.

Meanwhile, the Federal Bureau of Prisons has administered 31,285 doses, again according to CDC data. (Those data do not show whether any Florida federal prisoners have been vaccinated.)

DeSantis argues that his “seniors first” strategy for vaccine is meant to drive down hospitalization rates for COVID, because it shields the people most vulnerable to serious symptoms and death.

He also has argued that the state’s vaccination rate relative to other states reflects his insistence on following federal guidelines that patients complete the two-dose protocols, rather than administer those doses immediately to new patients.

The community where DeSantis delivered his remarks lies substantially within Sumter County, which leads the state in terms of the rate of people who have been vaccinated, at 12.1 percent. Glades County had the lowest percentage as of Thursday, at 4.25 percent, according to a recent Phoenix analysis.

The Gannett Florida newspapers have reported that state planners have made no clear plans to vaccinate 354,000 people with developmental disabilities who live outside nursing homes and other facilities that might have helped them access the vaccines.

The federal government has increased Florida’s share to 307,000 doses this week, about 40,000 more than the state has been allotted recently, DeSantis said. The largess, he added, allows him to reopen a drive-through vaccination site in The Villages, probably on Thursday. Earlier, a site set up for vaccinations in The Villages was taken down after a few days because of supply problems.

“We’re going to feed 4,000 doses, initial doses, to that site on a permanent basis as long as our supply remains what it is,” he said, in addition to other drive-through sites in the state. He also promised fresh doses for senior communities in Hillsborough and Broward counties.

Additionally, DeSantis has steered doses to hospitals, county health departments, African American churches, nursing homes, and Publix pharmacies. And the governor has reserved 1,500 doses for hospitals to administer to home-bound elderly people.

“Seniors first was, obviously, the overriding policy. But we said, you know, hospitals can administer to anybody, regardless of age, who’s especially vulnerable to COVID. So, a number of them immediately started just to go into their cancer wards and offering it to folks. That’s totally appropriate,” he said.

He indicated that his administration would re-emphasize COVID shots for younger people with comorbidities. As of Dec. 29, the CDC has listed 12 comorbidities, including cancer, type 2 diabetes, Down Syndrome, heart and lung disease, pregnancy, even smoking.

That would dramatically expand the eligibility pool, since more than 10 percent of Americans, or 34.2 million people suffer diabetes alone, according to the CDC.

DeSantis said that’s been his policy all along. In fact, an executive order he issued on Dec. 23, establishing vaccination priorities as seniors, nursing home residents and staff, and front-line medical personnel, does note: “Hospital providers, however, also may vaccinate persons who they deem to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”

He wants the doses to go through hospitals because he doesn’t want pharmacists or nurses “to have to referee someone’s comorbidity,” he said. “This something that the doctors have to handle. It’s got to be in the confines of a hospital system.”

It’s time now for seniors who weeks ago received initial Pfizer and Moderna doses to take their follow-up shots, DeSantis said. “You’re going to see a lot more of it go out the door and into people’s arms.”

Johnson & Johnson has reported that in worldwide testing its one-dose vaccine has proven 66 percent reliable in preventing moderate-to-severe COVID-19 infections, below efficacy reports for the Pfizer and Moderna products; the J&J figure was 72 percent among U.S. test subjects.

However, the vaccine “demonstrated complete protection against COVID-19 related hospitalization and death as of day 28,” the company said, and has been effective against COVID variants including the South African strain.

“If you have something that will rule out fatalities and rule out, for all intents and purposes, people even being admitted to hospitals, that is a successful vaccine. Sign me up for that,” DeSantis said.

That would hasten the state’s return to normality, the governor suggested.

“I don’t think we would change society because somebody has a cough for two days or has a cold for two days. I mean, those are normal, mild maladies that we see all the time regardless of COVID,” he said.

Michael Moline
Michael Moline has covered politics and the legal system for more than 30 years. He is a former managing editor of the San Francisco Daily Journal and former assistant managing editor of The National Law Journal. He began his career covering the Florida Capitol for United Press International. More recently, he wrote for Florida Politics.