DeSantis doubles down on vaccinating seniors first as criticism mounts on his handling of the rollout

Susannah Bryan, South Florida Sun Sentinel

The coveted COVID-19 vaccine was injected into the arms of 500 lucky seniors Sunday at a church in Hollywood.

The site, erected for one day only, was one of seven throughout the state set up to give the state’s most elderly residents the protection they need from the deadly coronavirus, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Sunday at a news conference in Lynn Haven, where 500 seniors had signed up to get their first dose.

“We’re going to keep working hard until every senior who wants it is able to get it,” DeSantis said after the first two seniors — one man and one woman — got their vaccination shots outside the Lynn Haven Senior Center, north of Panama City. A follow-up event will be held in a few weeks to deliver the second dose.

In addition to Lynn Haven and Hollywood, similar sites were in operation Sunday in Tampa, St. Lucie, Tallahassee, Jacksonville and the New Mount Olive Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale.

Those seven sites represent “just a little drop in the bucket,” but every little bit helps right now, Sen. Perry Thurston, D-Fort Lauderdale, said outside the Hollywood vaccination site on Sunday.

“We have a serious supply and demand issue with this vaccine,” said Thurston, referring to the state’s painstakingly slow rollout.

Florida is seeing the worst spike in cases since the pandemic began, said Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, who joined Thurston and other local politicians for a news conference at the Koinonia Worship Center in Hollywood.

Wasserman Schultz, D-Weston, blamed DeSantis for the state’s widespread bungling of the pandemic, including the dysfunctional online portal seniors are required to use to sign up for a vaccination at sites run by the state health department in Broward County.

“We are in the midst of a very dangerous health crisis,” Schultz said. “That is why today’s vaccinations are so important. There is light at the end of the tunnel but that doesn’t mean people should pretend the virus is no longer a threat.”

DeSantis said the pilot program was just one more way to get the precious vaccine to our senior and African American populations.

“We’re doing the right thing for our parents and grandparents,” DeSantis said. “The fact of the matter is this virus has been more deadly to the people who are elderly. We’ve got to stand by our elderly folks. We understand the data, we understand where the risk is. We’re going to focus on seniors first.”

In just two days, the roster of vaccine applicants was full for the Hollywood vaccination site.

You didn’t have to be a member of the church to get on the list, but you did have to be 65 or older.

Willie Johnson, an associate pastor at the Koinonia Worship Center who helped plan the event, was one of about 100 members of the church to get that shot in the arm on Sunday.

Johnson, who is 67 and lives in Plantation, doesn’t care much for shots, but was happy to wait his turn in the vaccination line on Sunday.

“We did a drive-thru because many of the elderly don’t like to stand in line,” he said. “We had 1,200 sign up but we could only do 500. It was very important to get the shot seeing we have thousands of people who have already died.”

Johnson had one other very good reason for signing up: He misses seeing his three grandchildren, up close and in person.

“I want to be able to see them,” he said. “I have only seen them through Zoom during the pandemic.”

State Sen. Shevrin Jones, who tested positive for the virus in July, helped get word out on social media about the event.

“Black communities and adults over the age of 50 are disproportionately impacted by this deadly virus,” Jones, D-West Park, said as the vaccinations got underway. “We know people are hurting. They are worried about paying rent, keeping their businesses afloat and keeping their family healthy. There are so many others who still need to be vaccinated. This public health crisis can come to an end if we all do our part.”

In Lynn Haven, the governor was joined by state Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who acknowledged the state has been roundly criticized for its handling of the pandemic. But DeSantis has reacted with urgency to help save lives, Patronis said.

“It’s been a challenge,” Patronis said. “COVID-19 has changed the world. There’s critics. Everybody feels like there’s a better way to do this.”

The vaccine being rolled out across the state and nation is the real game-changer, he said.

“Today, what you see is a light at the end of a very, very dark tunnel,” Patronis said.

He spoke of meeting seniors forced to live in fear and isolation since the pandemic began who were gratefully to finally get their first dose of the vaccine.

“You saw people who had tears in their eyes, they were so happy,” he said.

Susannah Bryan can be reached at sbryan@sunsentinel.com or on Twitter @Susannah_Bryan