As large swaths of the country face snags in COVID-19 vaccine distribution due to crippling snow and ice, some communities in Florida may face snags due to political windstorms from their governor, Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis met with criticism this week after the state unveiled plans to open a “pop-up” clinic near Tampa that would offer vaccine doses only to residents in affluent, mostly white, mostly Republican areas of Manatee County. The clinic will vaccinate 3,000 residents of just two zip codes in the county, which were reportedly hand-selected by DeSantis and county commissioner Vanessa Baugh—instead of being selected using the state’s vaccine lottery system.
Plans for the clinic were born from a deal struck between DeSantis, Baugh, and real estate developer Rex Jensen, according to the Bradenton Herald. DeSantis reportedly reached out to Jenson, who agreed to host the clinic on his development, Lakewood Ranch. The master-planned community covers much of the two selected zip codes served by the clinic. The zip codes also overlap with Baugh’s district.
Backlash to the clinic was swift, but DeSantis defended the plan and even threatened to pull vaccine supplies from the county over the criticism.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference Wednesday. “We’re totally happy to do that.”
The comments have only bolstered concern that the governor is playing favorites and politics with life-saving vaccine.
In a statement reported by CNN, Florida Democratic Party Chair Manny Diaz said 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.”
Democratic state Sen. Annette Taddeo echoed the point, saying “it’s disgusting and unacceptable for the governor to politicize life-saving vaccines.”
“I’d do it again”
Since the vaccine rollout began, public health advocates have warned of unequal vaccine distribution leaving communities of color hardest hit by the pandemic underserved. In the early phases of vaccine distribution, the demographics of those getting shots somewhat mirrored the demographics of the people in the first priority groups: healthcare workers and people living in long-term care facilities. But, as the rollout continues and health officials continue to struggle to collect demographic data, inequities are expected to rise.
This is clearly on the minds of some officials in Manatee County this week. In a county meeting Tuesday, Republican commissioner Misty Servia criticized the clinic, saying: “You’re taking the Whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them ahead of everyone else… The optics are bad… very bad… I’m really disappointed.”
According to CNN, commissioner Reggie Bellamy was equally upset at the plan, saying he had been “fighting like hell to show people that the [vaccine] lottery is equal and we cannot compromise the system… And now all of a sudden someone is telling me that we were able to go in and pull names out— pull a certain demographic out—and say, ‘These are the people that we’re going to serve.’”
Baugh, meanwhile defended her actions, according to Fox 13, saying: “I realize ya’ll don’t like the way it happened. I am sorry. But it is 3,000 people who will be taken off the list in Manatee County that get the vaccine. If there is a problem with that, I am sorry. But I jumped on it and I’d do it again.”
According to emails obtained by 10 Tampa Bay, Baugh requested to have her name and four others put on the vaccination list for the clinic.