MIAMI—About three weeks ago, Jane McPherson put her name on a standby list of older folks seeking the COVID-19 vaccine from the health department in Manatee, a county of roughly 400,000 people on the gulf coast of Florida. That list swelled to nearly 158,000 senior citizens, and the 65-year-old resident of Bradenton, the county seat, is still waiting for her shot.
“I’m stuck in the queue,” she told The Daily Beast, referring to the local vaccine lottery system. “No one has called me. I guess I need to pursue it harder.”
Last week, McPherson tried signing up for a vaccine shot at her local Publix, the Lakeland, Florida-based grocery store chain that Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration picked for an exclusive pilot program to inoculate seniors at hundreds of pharmacy locations statewide.
Still no luck. Due to vaccine shipments being delayed by the brutal snowstorms that blanketed most of the U.S., Publix canceled booking windows for people to sign up for immunization appointments. In fact, Manatee County Commissioner Carol Whitmore told The Daily Beast that 5,100 doses the health department was supposed to receive last week were delayed.
“The weather screwed things up,” McPherson said, dejectedly. “These are scary times.”
But even as McPherson struggled to get an appointment, DeSantis funneled 3,000 extra doses to seniors residing in two targeted zip codes within Lakewood Ranch, a well-off residential community near Bradenton developed by the Uihlein family. The clan’s members include GOP and DeSantis megadonor Richard Uihlein, who gave $900,000 to the governor’s re-election effort in 2018 and 2019, according to the Florida Division of Elections. The Uihleins own Lakewood Ranch’s parent company Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, whose CEO Rex Jensen got a call from DeSantis about delivering the goods, as first reported by The Bradenton Herald. (A spokesperson for Schroeder-Manatee told the Sun-Sentinel Richard Uihlein was not himself a shareholder in the company.)
Jensen then contacted Republican Manatee County Commission Chairwoman Vanessa Baugh to help set up the pop-up vaccine site, and she gave the final word on who would get the shots, according to local media reports. She even provided a VIP list to county staff that included herself, some of her friends, and Jensen.
The governor’s decision has not gone over well–even among some of his supporters.
“I did vote for him,” McPherson told The Daily Beast. “I would not vote for him again unless whoever runs against him is a worse person.”
Indeed, a routine press conference last week touting the plan as another notch on the vaccine-fixated governor’s belt went south quickly. From a podium set up at the Lakewood Ranch outdoor pop-up clinic, DeSantis bristled at questions about complaints from residents who were upset he was giving shots to an exclusive group of people. (Residents of the two zip codes are some of the wealthiest people in the region, and have faced lower infection rates than some of their neighbors.)
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it and we’re totally happy to do that,” DeSantis barked. “So anyone that’s saying that, let us know, if you want us to send it to Sarasota next time or Charlotte or Pasco or wherever, let us know; we’re happy to do it.”
It was the kind of snarky outburst DeSantis has hurled at reporters throughout a pandemic that has further endeared him to conservative voters in Florida. But the controversy swirling around the Lakewood Ranch vaccine debacle may cost him—even in Bradenton, a Republican-rich city that produced 124,827 votes for Donald Trump in 2020, roughly a 20 percent increase from his vote total there in 2016. DeSantis’ campaign of politically targeted vaccine distribution, throwing out lifelines to donors and allies even as he blocks localities from enforcing mask mandates, is alienating voters in a state where shots represent the only pandemic safety plan.
“He was like a little kid stomping his feet,” McPherson told The Daily Beast of DeSantis’ press conference.
Cindy Dunbar, an 84-year-old with a chronic pulmonary disease and a Republican who also voted for DeSantis in 2018, said the governor’s comments were “childish and irresponsible.” Like McPherson, Dunbar has been waiting for weeks for her name to be called, she said.
“If he had extra vaccines, DeSantis should have given it to the people in the stand-by pool, not call a developer,” Dunbar told The Daily Beast. “The whole thing was a scheme to give it to wealthy residents.”
Meanwhile, health experts warn that DeSantis is eroding public confidence in Florida’s vaccine rollout by seemingly rewarding individuals and companies who support him. Spokespersons for DeSantis did not respond to multiple email requests for comment for this story.
In late December, DeSantis held a press conference at The Villages, the state’s largest retirement community that overwhelmingly tilts to the GOP. As part of the presser, five Republican Villagers who previously held elected office or positions within local GOP clubs received shots weeks before hundreds of their neighbors were able to get inoculated. In early January, DeSantis announced the pilot program in which Publix would exclusively administer vaccines after the grocer contributed $100,000 to Friends of DeSantis.
DeSantis and Publix have denied any correlation between the partnership and the campaign contributions. But the mere perception of political favoritism can exacerbate the frustration of senior citizens who are trying to get vaccinated, University of South Florida infectious disease professor Dr. Jill Roberts told The Daily Beast. Many elderly people are already facing challenges with having internet access for making appointments and the need to have a vehicle to get to vaccination sites, Roberts added.
“Favoritism continues to erode the public’s trust in the system which should be providing equality for all,” Roberts told The Daily Beast. “Obviously, vaccines should continue to go to those with the greatest need and never those with the greatest dollars.”
Dr. Marissa Levine, another University of South Florida epidemiology scholar, said having an ethical framework around the logistics of distributing vaccines is critical for helping people and managing a difficult rollout. “In this case [involving Lakewood Ranch], there weren’t any ethics here and it was much more a matter of who you know,” Levine told The Daily Beast. “It would have been better for DeSantis to take those doses and put them back in the existing [lottery system]. That is the more equitable way.”
During a Thursday county commission meeting, Chairwoman Baugh apologized for her role in organizing the Lakewood Ranch pop-up site. She said she believed she was following the governor’s directions about selecting areas that had a high concentration of seniors when she picked the zip codes 34202 and 34211. Coincidentally, both zip codes are located in her district—two areas where the average median income is around $100,000, or double Manatee’s overall median income, according to The Bradenton Herald. Baugh overruled county staff’s suggestion to draw names at random from the standby list, but also insisted that she did not herself get the vaccine at Lakewood Ranch.
“I also want to apologize to Gov. [Ron] DeSantis,” Baugh said at the meeting. “I don’t do that because I feel that I’m putting him in jeopardy because of Lakewood Ranch. I did exactly what he wanted. I am thankful and appreciate that he brought 3,000 additional doses to this county. That’s 3,000 more than we would’ve had.”
Baugh did not respond to messages left on her cellphone, but County Commissioner Whitmore, also a Republican, said the governor did not deserve the brunt of the blame. “I don’t care what party I am in, I am embarrassed that this happened,” Whitmore told The Daily Beast. “Now, I have never spoken with the governor and I didn’t attend the press conference, but he was set up. Commissioner Baugh took full responsibility.”
Whitmore, a registered nurse, said the DeSantis administration has ramped up the amount of doses Manatee received since mid-January after the county and the state health department opened a large vaccination site in Bradenton’s Bennett Park. Whitmore herself volunteers at the site preparing syringes, she said. According to the most recent update from the Florida Department of Health, 44,333 people have been vaccinated in Manatee County.
“We were initially getting 1,500 doses a week and then it went up to 2,000,” Whitmore said. “In the past month, it’s gone up from 4,000 a week to 5,100. We have seen an increase without even asking.”
Still, seniors like McPherson are stuck without a vaccine in a state where that may be the only hope for survival thanks to an officially sanctioned climate of pandemic rebellion.
“I do everything I am supposed to do like wear my mask when I go out, wash my hands constantly, and avoid big groups,” she said. “I’ve lived here 50 years and I know people from out of state who have come here and gotten the vaccine. It pisses me off.”
McPherson was impressed with DeSantis’ leadership during the first year of his term, but her faith in him fell apart during the pandemic.
“At first, I thought he was doing a good job,” she said. “Now, I question some of his decisions. When he said he would send the vaccine to other places, I thought it was very juvenile of him. It was like his feelings got hurt. When you are governor, that is not how it is supposed to work.”
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