With the help of connections, several FL groups appear to get special treatment in securing vaccine doses

Gov. Ron DeSantis opens a COVID vaccine "pod" on Feb. 17, 2021, in Manatee County. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

As Florida residents rush to try to get vaccines, some well-connected political and business figures are securing front-of-the-line doses for their communities, raising questions about what appears to be special treatment.

A fresh example cropped up on Wednesday, when Gov. Ron DeSantis appeared in Manatee County to open a vaccine “point of distribution,” or pod, at the affluent Lakewood Ranch, which was developed by prominent businessman Rex Jensen. Showing up at the news conference was former Senate President Bill Galvano.

DeSantis bristled when reporters asked why the vaccines weren’t targeted to less privileged neighborhoods.

But this wasn’t the first time that doses seemed to go to areas represented by influential state officials or in heavily Republican areas. The usual vaccine distribution, having first targeted front-line medical workers, now is focused on people 65 and older.

But getting a vaccination can be a struggle, despite a growing network of vaccination points, because the supply doesn’t meet the demand.

Earlier in February, the governor started targeting vaccines to specific groups, such as home-bound survivors of the Holocaust, the Bay of Pigs, World War II, and the Korean War. Regarding the Bay of Pigs veterans, DeSantis said he’d been approached by Republican state Sen. Manny Diaz, Jr. and other influential Miamians to provide the vaccinations.

DeSantis said at the time that because of these groups’ sacrifices, “morally, it’s the right thing to do.”

He also has reached out specifically to houses of worship, including African American congregations, synagogues, and mosques, to reach under-served populations. And, in early February, the governor set up a pod in the struggling Lake Okeechobee community of Pahokee.

But even some of those happened because of people with connections. In Pahokee, it was John Davis, his Department of the Lottery chief, who’d been approached by philanthropist Anquan Boldin, who’d played football with Davis at Florida State University before they both joined the NFL.

And the Koinonia Worship Center in Hollywood, one of the churches involved, is led by pastor Eric Jones, father to Democratic state Sen. Shevrin Jones.

DeSantis said in Pahokee that the vaccine came from “a very small number of doses at the Division of Emergency Management that we use to fill gaps if something happens or you need more.”

The division has yet to respond to requests for more information about how certain groups were targeted for vaccinations.

DeSantis was questioned by news reporters about the arrangement with Lakewood Ranch, developed by prominent businessman Jensen, according to a report Wednesday in the Bradenton Herald.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh worked with Jensen and the administration to decide where to place the pod, the Herald reported. As it happens, the area lies within her commission district.

“But, look, if Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said during a news conference at the site where health care workers were distributing 3,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine.

“And we’re totally happy to do that. So, anyone that’s saying that, let us know if you want us to send it to Sarasota next time or Charlotte or Pasco or wherever — let us know, we’re happy to do it,” DeSantis said.

According to the Herald, other members of the county commission were upset that this batch was targeted only at people in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes, who represent 8 percent of the county’s 30,557 COVID cases.

“For the life of me, I can’t understand why we would vaccinate the most affluent neighborhoods in the county ahead of everyone else, especially the underserved neighborhoods and large number of manufactured home parks in our community,” Commissioner Misty Servia told the newspaper.

Jensen told the Herald that the developer Pat Neal called him about the project, and that the governor was also on the line, saying he wanted to boost vaccinations in the county, and that Baugh helped with the logistics.

DeSantis on Wednesday emphasized that the Lakewood doses were over and above the 6,000 doses already scheduled for distribution wherever local officials please.

“There was no choice to pick certain zip codes,” DeSantis said. “It was we wanted to find communities that have high levels of seniors living in there. And this obviously has a high concentration.”

“And I can tell you, our reason for doing these pods in these three counties was because the 65-and-plus population percentage who had had shots was lower than the state average and, in some cases, a lot lower. I mean, you have some counties that have had 65 percent of their seniors have already had a shot. There’s probably different reasons for that. But some of them have done a really good job. So, we saw a need and we’re able to meet the need.”

The most recent vaccine data from the Florida Department of Health shows that 25,789 residents have been vaccinated in Charlotte County; 42,352 in Manatee County; and 65,554 people vaccinated in Sarasota.

Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services Nikki Fried fired off a written statement condemning the governor.

“There is no reason that Gov. DeSantis should be rationing vaccines based on political influence. This is troubling and potentially illegal. Vaccines should be distributed to counties based on need, capacity, and science,” Fried said.

“While I am disappointed in the governor using vaccines as a political tool, I plan on working with the Biden administration to ensure they do not penalize Floridians for his actions and continue to ramp up vaccine distribution to all communities, so that we can get our economy and state going again.”

Florida Democratic Party chair Manny Diaz also released a written statement.

“Gov. DeSantis must stop playing politics with the vaccine distribution here in Florida. Threatening retribution and less vaccine access for communities that criticize the vaccine rollout for its problems is shameful and inhumane,” Diaz said.

“Vaccine access is a life or death situation for so many Floridians, yet somehow Gov. DeSantis thinks it is okay to play favorites and punish anyone who criticizes him or his vaccine program. This must stop. Floridians need a leader with empathy, not a politician who chooses politics over lives.”