2nd Democrat calls for investigation of DeSantis's vaccine distribution

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WASHINGTON — The sole Democrat elected to statewide office in Florida is calling on the U.S. House of Representatives coronavirus committee to investigate the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, for “alleged political favoritism” in coronavirus vaccine distribution.

That call comes in a letter that Florida’s agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, will send on Monday morning to Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., who heads the coronavirus committee, and Rep. Steve Scalise of Louisiana, its ranking Republican member. The letter was obtained by Yahoo News over the weekend.

Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial
A Moderna COVID-19 vaccine vial. (Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

“My office has received frequent complaints” about the state’s vaccine strategy, Fried writes, charging DeSantis with “an inept distribution of vaccines at best, and corrupt political patronage at worst.”

It is the second such call, coming days after Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., asked the Department of Justice to investigate DeSantis on much the same grounds. Crist’s letter, sent on Feb. 21, alleged that DeSantis, a close ally of former President Donald Trump, “is establishing vaccine distribution and administration sites in select locations to benefit political allies and donors, over the needs of higher risk communities.”

Crist and Fried are both potential gubernatorial candidates, making their requests for an investigation impossible to separate from politics. Then again, the pandemic has been hounded by politics from the start. It may just be that the politics in Florida are more bare-knuckled and consequential than they are in most other places.

Fried, one of DeSantis's most unstinting critics, told Yahoo News that "Florida’s vaccine distribution has been chaotic and without a plan. It’s been inequitable, with Black and Hispanic residents left behind. And it’s been corrupt, with the Governor’s donors and political allies getting special access.”

“The message is clear,” she said. “If Ron DeSantis likes you, or if you give his campaign money, you can cut in line ahead of seniors, teachers, and essential workers. It’s despicable and it needs to stop.”

In an email to Yahoo News, DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said that “the insinuation that politics play into vaccine distribution in Florida is baseless and ridiculous,” pointing to vaccination clinics at Florida A&M University, a historically Black college, and, in partnership with the Biden administration, in underserved areas of Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. The DeSantis administration has recently held vaccination drives in churches, which has helped to correct racial disparities. Vaccination sites have also come to Walmart and Winn-Dixie outlets.

Nikki Fried holds a microphone aloft at a Jimmy Buffett concert
Nikki Fried at a concert in support of Florida Democratic candidates Sen. Bill Nelson and Andrew Gillum in 2018. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

While controversies about the coronavirus vaccine abound across the country, the relationship between DeSantis and Florida’s Democrats has become particularly acrimonious, preventing the kind of cooperation that would presumably make the vaccination effort more efficient.

Although he enjoyed a surprising measure of bipartisan support in his first year in office, DeSantis has more recently faced harsh criticism from Democrats for his handling of the pandemic, which has mirrored that of Trump. The scramble for vaccines has only deepened such frustrations, renewing fears that DeSantis, like Trump, is interested only in catering to his most loyal supporters.

“He is treating Black people like an afterthought,” says state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat who represents West Palm Beach. Hardy told Yahoo News he supported an investigation of DeSantis.

“We all deserve to know whether the governor is rewarding his donors and supporters by granting them privileged access to this life-preserving resource,” Rep. Hardy said, adding that if DeSantis has as much confidence in his vaccine plan as he appears to, he should “welcome” such an inquiry.

(The governor’s office noted that he held a vaccination clinic early last month in West Palm Beach with Anquan Boldin, the former professional football player.)

DeSantis’s primary goal has been to vaccinate the state’s large population of seniors. Beatrice, the governor’s spokeswoman, noted that those efforts have included outreach to veterans of World War II and the Korean War, as well as Holocaust survivors. In prioritizing the elderly, however, DeSantis is going against federal guidelines that call for essential workers to be at or near the front of the vaccination line.

Gov. Ron DeSantis appears to scowl next to Former President Donald Trump at a table with microphones in front of various flags
Then-President Donald Trump at a "COVID-19 Response and Storm Preparedness" event with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Belleair, Fla., in July. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

DeSantis has been criticized for allegedly hiding data about the pandemic’s ravages in assisted-living facilities, keeping coroners from providing accurate coronavirus fatality statistics and misrepresenting the number of young people who have fallen ill with COVID-19. He was among the most eager governors to open up his state, which earned plaudits from conservatives averse to lockdowns. Some saw the rush as irresponsible, however, and the nickname “Death Santis” took hold among his critics.

When coronavirus vaccines first became widely available in January, DeSantis faced criticism for setting up vaccination sites in Publix supermarkets shortly after the company donated $100,000 to DeSantis’s political committee. Moreover, the specific Publix outlets where the vaccination sites were located were all in Republican counties won by Trump in November. A spokesperson for the company called such allegations “absolutely incorrect.”

Fried was elected in 2018 to serve as Florida’s agriculture secretary. As the only Democrat in DeSantis’s Cabinet, she has frequently sparred with the governor, most recently over his order that flags be lowered across the state to mark the death of Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host.

Fried cites several instances of alleged favoritism, in which real-estate magnates supportive of the governor allegedly received vaccine shipments to be used exclusively in their developments.

Those developments, according to reports cited by both Fried and Crist, include the wealthy enclaves of Boca Royale Golf & Country Club and Kings Gate Golf & Country Club, both of which received “pop-up” vaccination sites. Both sites were developed by Patrick Neal, a major DeSantis donor.

A representative for Neal Communities, the development company founded by Neal, did not immediately return a request for comment.

DeSantis also coordinated with developer and donor Rex Jensen to deliver 3,000 vaccine doses to Lakewood Ranch, a well-heeled planned community situated in a part of Manatee County where nine out of 10 people are white. County official Vanessa Baugh, a Republican who heads the Manatee County board of commissioners, is being investigated for setting up that event in a way that specifically targeted wealthier ZIP codes. Revelations about that vaccination event led Crist to ask acting U.S. Attorney General Monty Wilkinson to investigate DeSantis.

A representative for Lakewood Ranch declined to comment. Baugh did not answer a request for comment.

The governor has responded to questions about the Lakewood Ranch vaccine shipment with the kind of bluster that has marked his handling of the coronavirus from the start. “Look, if Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” he told reporters. Congressional or federal investigators could seek records from DeSantis and local officials like Baugh should they take up the calls by Crist and Fried.

The vaccination effort has been a complex brew of politics, policy and science. It has picked up pace in recent weeks, but it has also run into problems at every level of government, in Republican and Democratic jurisdictions alike. Elected officials and public health leaders have struggled to balance the need to vaccinate quickly and the need to do so equitably.

Last week, Democratic Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Bob Menendez of New Jersey introduced legislation to help ramp up vaccination and public health efforts in underserved communities. “It’s unacceptable that marginalized communities suffering the highest COVID-19 mortality rates aren’t receiving their fair share of vaccinations nor access to education on preventative measures,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who also supports the measure.

The lack of comprehensive reporting only compounds frustration and confusion. Many states do not report data about racial distribution of the vaccine. Florida does release those statistics, along with 33 other states; according to Fried’s letter, 11 percent of white Floridians have been vaccinated, but only 4.3 percent of African Americans and 4.8 percent of Latinx residents received vaccines.

Similar disparities have been observed in Maryland, California and many other states. Democrats insist that DeSantis is exacerbating those disparities instead of trying to correct them, as most other governors appear to be doing.

Such accusations first surfaced in late January, when Carlos Hernández, the Republican mayor of Hialeah, Fla., charged that DeSantis was freezing him out of the state’s distribution plans. “We are the 5th largest city in the state of Florida and the one most affected and we have no communication and no help whatsoever from the Governor or his office,” Hernandez said at the time.

A woman, seated on a church pew, receives a shot in the arm by a paramedic, both wearing face masks
A woman receives the COVID-19 vaccine from a paramedic at a church in Tampa on Feb. 14. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

DeSantis has long sought to model his coronavirus response to that of former President Donald Trump, who lifted the then congressman out of obscurity with a 2018 tweet endorsing his unlikely bid for the governorship. He has shunned masks, business closures and other measures public health officials say are necessary to keep people safe. More than 30,000 people have died on his watch. Nevertheless, some conservatives have celebrated DeSantis’s response to the pandemic, especially contrasted to that of Gavin Newsom of California and Andrew Cuomo of New York, both of whom have faced challenges of their own.

The governor has aggressively defended his push to vaccinate seniors as apolitical and grounded in science. Risk of falling seriously ill with or dying from COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, rises significantly with age, and Florida has one of the oldest populations in the United States.

For state representatives from communities of color, there is little doubt about what is happening. “Gov. DeSantis has come up with plans that leave Black people behind,” says state Rep. Hardy of West Palm Beach. “We have had to scratch and claw for the doses we’ve been able to get into the Black community.”

State Rep. Michele Rayner, whose district includes parts of the Tampa Bay area, says much the same thing. Asked by Yahoo News if she believed that the DeSantis administration was equitably distributing vaccines, she quoted James Baldwin, the famous Black novelist and social critic: “I can't believe what you say, because I see what you do.”

Rayner and Hardy both said that to get vaccines to the communities they represent, they went to Jared Moskowitz, who heads Florida’s emergency department and has long been seen as an advocate of sound public health measures like mask-wearing. Moskowitz announced last month that he is leaving his post.

Meanwhile, the more contagious B117 strain of the coronavirus is spreading across Florida. A recent Miami Herald editorial noted that Florida is “ground zero” for that new strain and urged DeSantis to leave politics aside and vaccinate as many Floridians as quickly as possible.

“The last thing Floridians need,” that editorial said, “is a politician with a hurt ego retaliating against critics by withholding life-saving vaccines.”