Florida governor faces growing charges of vaccine favoritism

National & World News

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press after giving his State of the State speech on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee, Fla. Tuesday, March 2, 2021. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat via AP)

MIAMI (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and state health officials came under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid -January, giving ammunition to critics who say the Republican governor is favoring wealthy constituents over ordinary Floridians.

The revelations were the latest example of wealthy Floridians getting earlier access to coronavirus vaccines, even as the state has lagged in efforts to get poorer residents vaccinated.

DeSantis pushed back Thursday, saying a local hospital — not the state — was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, and that the state “wasn’t involved in it in any shape or form.”

Despite the governor’s denials of quid pro quos, the charges of favoritism were amplified by the wads of money pouring into the governor’s campaign coffers from wealthy benefactors with ties to communities awarded vaccination sites — like the one in Key Largo. One resident of Ocean Reef, Republican former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, last week gave the Florida governor’s campaign committee $25,000.

Revelations about Ocean Reef residents getting vaccinated werefirst reported by the Miami Herald.

The inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines is becoming a public relations challenge for the governor. Of the 3.2 million people who have received one or two doses of the vaccines, less than 6% have been Black — about a third of their share of the state’s population.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in calling for federal officials to probe the DeSantis administration’s vaccine distribution programs.

During a Thursday press conference at the Florida Capitol, Fried called on the FBI’s public corruption unit to launch an investigation.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said, noting what she said was a pattern.

“Give campaign contributions big dollars, get special access to vaccines — ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farmworkers and so many of our residents here in our state of Florida who are scared and who are wanting these vaccines.”

Citing reporting from the Herald, Fried noted that DeSantis in February had his biggest fundraising haul since 2018, when he was running for governor.

“This is not a coincidence. This is not an accident,” she said, adding that residents in the wealthy Key Largo community were getting vaccinated “while so many of our seniors were struggling to get onto websites to get in lines, to get onto the phones.”

Last week, Crist, a former Florida governor, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into possible favoritism in the state’s distribution of the vaccines, asserting that DeSantis were benefiting “political allies and donors, over the needs of higher-risk communities and existing county waitlists.”

Both Crist and Fried are considering campaigns to oppose DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election.

Other Florida Democrats, including the top Democrat in the state Senate, Gary Farmer, joined in the call for a federal investigation.

“The exchange of hard-to-get vaccines for political contributions is nothing short of criminal,” Farmer said in a letter dashed off to acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.

During a Thursday news conference, DeSantis expressed no misgivings about the early vaccinations at the exclusive Key Largo community.

“If you are 65 and up, I am not worried about your income bracket,” he said. “I am worried about your age bracket because it’s the age, not the income, that shows the risk.”

The Ocean Reef Club, a senior community in Key Largo, had more than 1,200 homeowners vaccinated through their second dose by late January, according to a message to community members by the management obtained by the Miami Herald.

Those vaccinations came at a time when “the majority of the state has not received an allocation of first doses,” the management noted.

Officials from Monroe County, home to Key Largo, said the affluent club’s medical center received the vaccines through the Baptist Health hospital as part of the governor’s program to vaccinate communities with a populations of people 65 and older. County spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said the allocations were coordinated through Baptist and the state of Florida.

In recent weeks, other reports have surfaced of wealthy retirement communities getting exclusive access to vaccine doses through pop-up vaccine sites. Democrats have criticized him for choosing those places, but the governor’s office has noted that more than half of them have been in Democratic stronghold counties of Broward and Palm Beach. Supporters of DeSantis say he has also coordinated clinics with faith-based groups in underserved areas.

After Publix was made the sole distributor of vaccines in Palm Beach County in late January, the mayors of predominately Black farming communities in the area urged the governor to reconsider, and the state set up a vaccine station shortly after.

While critics point to disparities in vaccine distributions as a call for more outreach into underserved areas of the state, including in communities of color and impoverished neighborhoods, DeSantis noted that “demand was relatively tepid in FEMA sites in Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. The governor said the four sites had the capacity to administer 12,000 doses but only vaccinated 6,500 people.

The pastor of a Hispanic church with 400 members in Homestead, Florida, not far from Key Largo, said some areas have been forgotten in the vaccination campaign because of technological and language barriers.

“Many people here work all day and they are not up to date with where to go and how to sign up,” said Miguel Carrillo, pastor of Iglesia Roca Fuerte.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida. Associated Press writer Anila Yoganathan contributed from Atlanta.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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