DeSantis Faces Criticism Over Vaccine Pop-Up Clinics in Southwest Florida
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is facing bipartisan criticism of playing politics with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout in Southwest Florida.
The criticism stems from DeSantis’ recent selection of COVID-19 vaccine pop-up clinic sites in Charlotte and Manatee Counties. Last week, 1,000 vaccine shots were given out at a state-run pop-up vaccine clinic in Port Charlotte. DeSantis reached out to former state lawmaker and developer Pat Neal to host the clinic at a 55+ community called Kings Gate in Port Charlotte where Neal’s business Neal Communities is currently building homes.
DeSantis reached out to another area developer, Schroeder-Manatee Ranch CEO Rex Jensen, to help with another pop-up vaccine clinic in a Manatee County community called Lakewood Ranch that Jensen’s company built. Jensen has been a strong supporter of the Governor and has contributed to his political campaign. That vaccine clinic distributed 3,000 doses this week.
Jensen reached out to Manatee County Commission chairwoman Vanessa Baugh to help coordinate the clinic. Instead of selecting eligible seniors 65 and older through the county’s vaccine lottery registration system, Baugh instructed Manatee County Public Safety Director Jake Saur to only give vaccine appointments to people living the 34202 and 34211 zip codes.
“The zip codes in that location is the wealthiest, is the whitest and also is the most Republican” said League of Women Voters of Manatee County President Alice Newlon. Members of the organization have been monitoring and publishing summaries of County Commission meetings to about 1,500 followers since late November.
“In this particular situation, the other commissioners found out about this pop-up clinic and the fact that it was limited to two specific zip codes and that this was set up by one commissioner not communicating with any of the other commissioners,” said Newlon.
Aside from not involving other county elected officials in the process, Baugh sent an email to Safety Director Saur with the names of specific people she wanted to have get a vaccine appointment including herself, Robert and Marie Keehn who are her former neighbors, Rex Jenson the developer, and Rex’s father Lawrence Jensen.
County property records indicate that neither of the Jensen’s live in the designated zip codes.
When questioned this week by reporters about his decision to coordinate pop-up vaccine clinics through developers and political supporters instead of through local governments, DeSantis threatened to pull vaccine doses from the region.
“If they do not want more vaccine here, just let us know and we will make sure that it goes because there’s a lot of people who want the vaccine,” said DeSantis.
The governor says selection of the Lakewood Ranch community is in line with his plan to prioritize seniors for vaccine doses. On Wednesday, DeSantis spoke as though he was unaware of the plan to restrict doses to residents of just the two zip codes.
“There was no choice to pick certain zip codes. We wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living in there and this obviously has a high concentration,” said DeSantis.
“You look at all these different communities and there’s a lot of senior citizens. If there were few senior citizens, then you wouldn’t have set up a pod here.”
But Alice Newlon with the league of women voters said that’s not necessarily the case.
“I personally question whether it’s a concentration of senior citizens. If you look at where the senior citizens primarily are, you’re looking west, not east. Young families like Lakewood Ranch because they get more home for their money. They get a lot of conveniences. They get some really good schools out there. The senior citizens want to be at the beach,” said Newlon.
She also notes the site of the pop-up clinic wasn’t very far from the vaccine distribution site Manatee County already operates at Bennett Park. Lakewood Ranch is about ten miles from the park – about a 17-minute drive according to Google Maps.
During a public meeting, Thursday, Manatee Commission Chairwoman Baugh apologized and said her e-mail wasn’t intended to move the people she listed to the front of the line for a vaccine, but rather just to make sure they were in the county’s vaccine registration appointment system. Despite that claim, everyone on the list was offered a vaccine appointment this week. Baugh herself, did not get a vaccine shot.
Newlon stopped short of calling on Baugh to resign, but said the incident has eroded public assurance in county leadership.
“How do you restore confidence that this won’t happen again or that there is some consequence when number one: There is no action taken that would seem to be able to deal with this?” said Newlon.
“And number two: Vanessa Baugh has said even when she apologized that she would do it all again.”
The incident is also garnering national attention. Florida Commissioner of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Nikki Fried, who is Florida’s only state-wide elected Democrat, went on CNN this week to criticize how the pop-up clinic was handled calling it “outrageous,” “borderline illegal,” and “corruption at its worst.”
Fried also used the CNN appearance to highlight racial disparities in Florida’s vaccine rollout noting that 3.7% of the state’s black population has been vaccinated compared to nearly 10% of the white population.
She says her office is looking into ways Florida’s vaccine distribution effort can become more equitable across all ethnic, political and socioeconomic demographics.
Reporter Josuan Rodriguez with WUSF in Tampa contributed to this report.
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