DeSantis threatens to divert vaccines from communities criticizing distribution

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantisRon DeSantisFlorida strips schools of federal aid for mask mandates Florida surgeon general defends not wearing mask in meeting with ill state senator Florida school district to relax mask mandate for high school students MORE (R) on Wednesday threatened to divert coronavirus vaccines from communities that criticize his distribution efforts. 

DeSantis made the remarks at a news conference amid criticism that he arranged for seniors in two wealthy neighborhoods to be given priority vaccine access, The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

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The governor said that local officials should be grateful to receive extra doses and that otherwise he could send them elsewhere.

“If there’s going to be folks that are going to complain about getting more vaccines, you know, I’ll tell you what, I mean, I wouldn’t be complaining, I’d be thankful that we’re able to do it because, you know what, we didn’t need to do this at all,” DeSantis said.

The Bradenton Herald reported on Tuesday that DeSantis had reached out to a local developer and arranged a vaccination site exclusively for residents in the well-off neighborhoods of East Manatee and Lakewood Ranch. 

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According to the outlet, the areas have not seen as many coronavirus infections as some other parts of the county.

Residents in the two eligible ZIP codes — 34202 and 34211 — only make up about 8 percent of Manatee County’s overall 30,557 confirmed coronavirus cases.

The two ZIP codes are also some of the wealthiest in Manatee County, with median income in both regions more than double the county’s overall median income, The Herald noted.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh confirmed that DeSantis sought to establish a vaccine site within District 5, which she represents. She said it was her decision to choose the particular ZIP codes.

DeSantis called Rex Jensen, the developer of the master-planned Lakewood Ranch community, last week about establishing a vaccination site in the area, according to Baugh. She said she worked with Jensen to finalize the details. 

About 3,000 senior residents will receive the vaccine at the location over the next three days. The state recently set up similar community “pods” in The Villages and Sun City Center.

Baugh did not elaborate on why DeSantis reached out to Jensen or choose the Lakewood Ranch area, but said it should be seen as a “win-win” because more people were vaccinated.

“This is not a negative situation," she said. 

Her fellow Manatee County commissioners said they were stunned that the exclusive vaccination site was established without their knowledge. 

“I’m totally shocked that one district commissioner fought for more vaccines for only their district. What about the rest of the county? I’m shocked that we would do this without even the board knowing about it,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore, one of the county’s two at-large representatives.

“It doesn’t look good at all that one commissioner did that,” she continued.

During a public work session meeting, Commissioner Misty Servia said that “the optics are horrible.”

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“We have people struggling with the virus. If we were going to pick and choose, I would hope it would go to the underserved populations and neighborhoods,” Servia added. “You’re taking the whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else.”

Local officials weren’t the only ones criticizing the distribution plan. 

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried (D) quickly condemned DeSantis for his comments on Wednesday, saying there is no reason vaccines should be rationed out "based on political influence." 

“This is troubling and potentially illegal. Vaccines should be distributed to counties based on need, capacity, and science,' Fried said in a statement.

U.S. Rep. Debbie Wasserman SchultzDeborah (Debbie) Wasserman SchultzOn The Money — Presented by Wells Fargo — Democrats advance tax plan through hurdles Florida Democrat says vaccines, masks are key to small-business recovery DNC members grow frustrated over increasing White House influence MORE (D) said in a statement to the Sun-Sentinel that she is concerned that the governor was using vaccinations to show favoritism to political supporters.

“To threaten that he would pull vaccine if people don’t like the way the distribution system is working is vile and shows the callous indifference he has had in how the vaccine has been handled,” she said.