Wealthy Florida Keys enclave received vaccines in January before much of the state

The area is home to many wealthy donors to the Florida Republican Party and GOP candidates.
An aerial view shows Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy, gated community in north Key Largo. More than 1,200 older Ocean Reef residents received vaccinations in mid-January, well before doses arrived in most other areas of the state.
An aerial view shows Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy, gated community in north Key Largo. More than 1,200 older Ocean Reef residents received vaccinations in mid-January, well before doses arrived in most other areas of the state. [ Special to the Miami Herald ]
Published March 4, 2021|Updated March 4, 2021

MIAMI — As Florida’s eldest residents struggled to sign up to receive their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, nearly all those ages 65 years and older in a wealthy gated enclave in the Florida Keys had been vaccinated by mid-January, according to an emailed newsletter obtained by the Miami Herald.

The management of Ocean Reef Club, located in north Key Largo, also acknowledged in the Jan. 22 message to residents that the rest of the state was grappling to get its hands on the vaccine.

“Over the course of the last two weeks, the Medical Center has vaccinated over 1,200 homeowners who qualify under the State of Florida’s Governor’s current Order for those individuals who are 65 years of age or older,’' the message reads.

“We are fortunate to have received enough vaccines to ensure both the first and second for those vaccinated. At this time, however, the majority of the State has not received an allocation of first doses of vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear.”

Neither Ocean Reef’s media relations representative nor officials from its medical center immediately returned phone and emailed messages to answer questions about how it received so many vaccines before much of the rest of the state.

Ocean Reef Club is an ultra-exclusive neighborhood that is arguably one of the highest-security private communities in the nation. According to Sotheby’s International Realty, it has more than 2,100 members who live there either full- or part-time. It is also where the very wealthy and where dignitaries, including President Joseph Biden, come to stay when they visit the Florida Keys.

Many wealthy donors to the Florida Republican Party and GOP candidates, including Gov. Ron DeSantis, live there.

In fact, the only people from Key Largo who gave to DeSantis’ political committee live in Ocean Reef. All 17 of them had given the governor contributions of $5,000 each through December 2020, according to the Florida Division of Elections.

But on Feb. 25, one resident of Ocean Reef, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm, GTCR, increased his contribution and wrote a $250,000 check.

Since DeSantis started using the state’s vaccine initiative to steer special pop-up vaccinations to select communities, his political committee has raised $2.7 million in the month of February alone, more than any other month since he first ran for governor in 2018, records show.

A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to email and telephone messages, but, after the story was published, DeSantis spokesperson Meredith Beatrice said that the governor was not involved in selecting the Ocean Reef Club for the early vaccine distribution. She did not explain how the club obtained so many doses ahead of others.

“This was not a state supported senior community POD [point of distribution], nor was it requested by the governor,’' Beatrice said in an email.

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“Florida was the first state to prioritize seniors,’' she added. “The state has utilized a variety of approaches including walk-up, drive-thru, and faith-based initiatives to ensure vaccine access to all eligible Floridians, particularly in underserved communities. These efforts have resulted in Florida vaccinating over 50 percent of our state’s senior population — the highest of any state in the nation.”

Spokespeople for the governor did not immediately respond to emailed and telephone messages requesting comment on the Ocean Reef vaccines.

By hand-selecting the communities, DeSantis allows residents to bypass state and local vaccine registration systems and go directly through their community organizations, like the Medical Center at Ocean Reef.

Last month, a high-end community developed by Republican fundraiser Pat Neal was chosen by DeSantis to host a pop-up vaccination clinics near Bradenton. Only people from two ZIP codes were eligible to receive the vaccine at the Lakewood Ranch site, and names were chosen by Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who included herself on her vaccine selection list.

DeSantis chose two other Neal developments for pop-up sites in Charlotte and Sarasota counties. Campaign finance data shows that Neal, a former state senator, donated $125,000 to DeSantis’ political committee in 2018 and 2019 but is not reported to have made a contribution since.

The effort has brought scrutiny from DeSantis’ critics as the state’s vaccine distribution appears to be inequitable. By the end of February, only 5.6 percent of those who’ve been vaccinated in the state are Black, even though Blacks account for 17 percent of the state’s population, state records show.

Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried, the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, called for an investigation into the Lakewood Ranch clinics and asked DeSantis to suspend Baugh from the Manatee County Commission.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Meredith Beatrice, defended the pop-up clinics, telling the Sarasota Herald Tribune last week that of the 15 pop-up clinics targeted to senior communities, nine were in Broward and Palm Beach counties “which are not known for being Republican strongholds.”

DeSantis has denied that he is selecting locations for the senior clinics based on politics.

“There’s some people who are more upset at me for vaccinating seniors than they are at other governors whose policies have killed seniors, and that is a joke,” DeSantis said after the Bradenton Herald’s first Lakewood Ranch stories emerged.

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, a St. Petersburg Democrat who, like Fried, is seen as a potential rival to DeSantis in the 2022 governor’s race, has called for the U.S. Justice Department to investigate how the state allocates its vaccines.

For two months, reporters have asked the DeSantis administration to release the location and criteria used to distribute vaccines. The Florida Department of Health has since released some documents to the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau, but the records do not include complete details and show that one-fourth of all vaccines went to Publix supermarkets while the state did not keep track of where the grocery store chain allocated its doses.

The state has yet to release the written criteria it is using to determine which communities receive the special pop-up vaccine clinics.

This story was updated to include comments from the governor’s spokesperson.

Tampa Bay Times reporters Steve Contorno and Allison Ross contributed to this report