DeSantis says elderly will get coronavirus vaccine before essential workers, parting with CDC recommendations

Naseem S. Miller, South Florida Sun Sentinel

In the second phase of COVID-19 vaccination, Gov. Ron DeSantis is going to prioritize vaccination of Florida’s elderly population over essential workers such as teachers, postal and public transit workers, diverging from what federal health agencies have recommended.

“We’re not going to put young healthy workers ahead of our vulnerable elderly population,” DeSantis said at a news conference on Tuesday at The Villages, where several elderly got the first dose of Pfizer vaccine. “The vaccines are going to be targeted where the risk is the greatest and that is in our elderly population.”

Aside from the handful of The Villages residents who got the first dose of Pfizer vaccine on Tuesday, DeSantis didn’t specify how and when the 4.4. million Florida adults 70 years and older can get their vaccine.

“We are not going to have over the next six weeks 4.4 million doses. We probably will have a couple million, and so what I would say to the elderly population, it’s going to be reserved for you,” said DeSantis. “This is coming soon. Just stay tuned.”

The first phase of vaccination, which includes front-line health workers and nursing home residents and staff is still underway.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory committee came out with its second and third-phase vaccine recommendations on Sunday. The state governments can use the document as guidance to draft their own protocols.

The committee suggested including adults 75 years and older and frontline essential workers, including first responders, teachers, correctional facility staff, postal and public transit workers, who have direct contact with the public in the second priority group.

The following phase will include adults 65 to 74 years old, individuals 16 to 64 years old with high-risk medical conditions, and essential workers not included in the second phase, the CDC group recommended.

But DeSantis argued against grouping adults 75 years and older with essential workers in the second group.

“Just understand what that would mean,” he said Tuesday. “If you’re a 22-year-old working in food service, let’s say at a supermarket, you would have preference over a 74-year-old grandmother. I don’t think that is the direction we want to go.”

The CDC committee recommended to put the two groups together, because even though there’s no national surveillance for COVID-19 among frontline or other essential workers, there have been reports of outbreaks in these populations and “the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on workers who belong to racial and ethnic minority groups,” according to the CDC.

DeSantis has yet to address racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 cases and deaths across Florida. Studies have shown that several factors, including having high-contact, public-facing jobs such as health care and public transportation, are among the reasons that minority groups have faced a higher burden of disease during the pandemic.

“I think the CDC has given a good set of recommendations and for Mr. DeSantis to go rogue is the continuation of what he’s done all along, which is to not follow the advice of his sage medical advisers,” said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Nemours Children’s Hospital in Orlando. “While immunizing hospital people is good for the public health, immunizing teachers gets people back to work and that’s good for the economy.”

DeSantis’ office also didn’t respond to a request for more details about the state’s vaccination plans.

Florida received close to 180,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine last week and another 127,000 this week. It was scheduled to receive 367,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Tuesday, which will be distributed to more than 170 hospitals in Florida.

As of Tuesday, 55,000 Floridians had received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine, according to the Florida Department of Health.