Gov. Ron DeSantis loses his grip on FL’s vaccine plan: White House, rogue counties, overshadowing the governor

Gov. Ron DeSantis attends a ribbon-cutting ceremony at a Buc-ee's facility in Daytona Beach on March 22, 2021. Later, he said COVID vaccines could be available for all adults by May. Source: Screenshot/Florida Channel

Gov. Ron DeSantis was quick to correct the record when asked during a news conference this week about a report that the state had administered COVID vaccines to people as young as 18 during a jazz festival in Orlando over the weekend.

“The state has not,” the governor shot back, not waiting for the reporter to finish her question. He reiterated his policy of vaccinating older Floridians in advance of young people unlikely to suffer severe COVID symptoms.

The governor’s prickly response points to whether DeSantis may be losing total control over the eagerly sought doses as the Biden administration and some county leaders ignore his “seniors-first” policy.

For more than a year now, DeSantis has had a tough grip on plans to eradicate COVID-19, issuing executive orders, traversing the state, and prioritizing vaccine administration through a regimented plan.

But two large rogue counties last week overshadowed the governor: Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings ordered county staff to administer doses to people 40 and above, beginning on Monday. Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava soon followed suit, saying that age group could take shots beginning on March 29.

That wasn’t in DeSantis’ plan, because he’d told the news media and the public on Friday that, effective Monday, vaccines would be given to 50 and older residents, not the age 40 and older group.

The episode pointed to public confusion about the way the state parcels out COVID vaccines.

But, given the arithmetic of COVID vaccines, it may not matter much in the end, unless the governor chooses to make a point of punishing dissenters. As it stands now, the goals of the governor, president, and county leaders are converging.

As DeSantis noted on Monday, President Joe Biden wants all adults eligible for vaccines as of May 1. Even under the state’s framework for distributing vaccines, “I think we’re going to get there way before May 1,” the governor said.

“If you’re in your 20s, 30s, just understand, this is going to happen very soon, absent them really reeling back the vaccines on us in terms of the supply.”

DeSantis definitely lost some of the power he held to drive the pandemic response when Biden replaced Donald Trump, with whom the governor was close, in the White House.

The first crack in the dam appeared in early March, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency, under the newly installed president, began shipping vaccines directly to walk-up sites in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and Jacksonville with instructions to administer them to school personnel of any age.

DeSantis’ policy at the time was to give shots only to school workers aged 50 or older.

Then came the moves from Demings and Levine Cava. The Republican governor didn’t say Monday whether he’d responded to the two mayors, who are both Democrats.

Press aides to DeSantis had no response Monday to the Phoenix’s questions about what, if anything, he would do about the counties’ actions.

The Phoenix reached out to three of the top lawyers who have litigated for and against the state and each said he wasn’t familiar enough with the legal issue to comment about how a fight between the governor and mayors would work out.

We asked governments officials in other states whether they’d seen similar disputes. We heard back from Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a Democrat.

“In Washington the state has been firm with providers and local health jurisdictions about our priorities and that veering from that strategy could result in lower dose allocations. The vast majority of these entities have adhered to that without the state having to take corrective measures,” Faulk said.

Asked about the matter during a news conference last week, DeSantis himself protested, “There’s a structure in the state of Florida in terms of how these decisions are made,” and added: “Trying to do healthy 40-year-olds over finding, maybe, some more seniors — to me, would not be the direction that I would go in,” the governor said.

Demings, who’s married to U.S. Rep. Val Demings, told the Phoenix in a written statement:

“I am unapologetic for making a decision in the best interest of my county. Before I made my announcement that lowered the vaccine eligibility age to 40, we notified the Florida Department of Emergency Management and followed up with a letter.”

He added:

“I was elected to work on the behalf of the citizens of Orange County and I take that responsibility seriously. In my judgement, due to the depressed demand at the Convention Center, lowering the age was the right thing to do.”

In his letter to state Director of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz, dated Thursday, Demings wrote that his county could easily accommodate vaccine administration to younger people without pain to older people.

WMFE in Central Florida reported that Demings had consulted with neighboring counties and the White House before acting.

Levine Cava’s aides have yet to respond to questions from the Phoenix about the possible breach with DeSantis. In remarks quoted by the Miami Herald last week, she said, “I believe we have reached a turning point in our vaccination efforts. We need to aggressively expand vaccine eligibility to more adults… It’s critical that no available vaccines go unused.”

A press aide to Biden declined to comment regarding the state-county disputes in Florida.

Florida law appears to give governors broad authority to respond to emergencies like COVID. In a series of executive orders responding to the pandemic, DeSantis invoked language in the Florida Constitution vesting “the supreme executive power” in his office. On many matters of policy, however, he shares authority with the independently elected state Cabinet.

He also invokes the Florida Emergency Management Act which appears to give governor’s sweeping authority over state and local agencies when dealing with disasters.

For example, it puts him in charge of “the use or distribution of any supplies, equipment, and materials and facilities assembled, stockpiled, or arranged to be made available” to meet the disaster.

As for that business at the jazz festival, it turns out, according to local news organizations including ClickOrlando, that it represented a failure of communications — a city commissioner had declared during a Facebook live stream that 18-year-olds could get the shots but omitted to note that was only if they suffered comorbidities. He later corrected the record.