TALLAHASSEE — The alert system set up by state emergency managers to send Floridians urgent public health and safety text messages was activated Wednesday, but it wasn’t an emergency.
It was used to deliver a three-minute video message from Gov. Ron DeSantis that repeated what Floridians had previously learned from news reports — that vaccines and therapeutics were headed to Florida hospitals within weeks.
Recording from his desk in the Capitol, DeSantis acknowledged that the early doses of therapeutic drugs and vaccines will have to be rationed but, as he has done for weeks, he offered no explanation as to who decides who gets the first doses and what criteria is being used.
This is the second time in two weeks that DeSantis, who has virtually disappeared from public view since the election, has chosen to bypass reporters’ questions and instead issue a video message delivered on social media and distributed by the state’s emergency operations alert system as well as his email platform.
Last week, he produced a five-minute video in which he touted vaccines as “probably the greatest rays of hope” for containing the virus, and said the state would not mandate that Floridians get them. He offered no specifics.
This week’s video message came after several news organizations wrote stories about what Politico dubbed “DeSantis’ post-election vanishing act.” The reports detailed how the governor had disappeared after President Donald Trump’s defeat, a stark contrast to how he spent months before the election crisscrossing the state, pushing to reopen business, downplaying the summer surge in COVID cases, echoing the White House’s coronavirus messaging and even amplifying questionable herd immunity theories.
Two days after the election, DeSantis appeared Fox News’ The Ingraham Angle where he urged Trump to “fight on” and pushed state legislatures to take matters into their own hands. He next emerged for a brief interview on The Weather Channel before Tropical Storm Eta’s approach.
And last week DeSantis was briefly introduced in the state House and Senate chambers as he attended the organization session for the Florida Legislature. But instead of taking questions, the governor quietly slipped out a back corridor and hopped on a plane to Washington, D.C., where, according to his schedule, he met with White House health officials.
Asked by the Sarasota Herald Tribune this week if DeSantis’ reluctance to take part in public events was designed to avoid fielding questions from reporters about Trump’s failed efforts to challenge election results in key states, DeSantis’ communications director Fred Piccolo said, “I think that’s as good a guess as any.”
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The strategy has drawn predictable complaints from Democrats.
“More videos, huh?’' said state Rep. Anna Eskamani of Orlando on Twitter Wednesday. “Any thoughts on hosting a press conference so reporters can ask you questions and public has more insight into Florida’s management of the #COVID19 pandemic?”
By recording a one-way message, DeSantis avoids answering the persistent questions that have been mounting for the last month about how state officials are handling the national distribution of vaccines and therapeutics.
He has not responded to demands from a bipartisan group of mayors urging him to impose a statewide mask mandate, increase the state’s testing effort and reinstate the authority of local governments to impose coronavirus restrictions.
He has not explained why he has endorsed the policies of Trump’s controversial health adviser, Scott Atlas, who endorses allowing community spread of the virus while protecting the elderly. And, as cases in Florida continue to climb, DeSantis has not answered why cases in long-term care facilities are also rising, even though they are supposed to be the state’s top priority.
“As we anxiously await the vaccine, I think it’s important to double-down on protecting our most vulnerable particularly our vulnerable seniors in long-term care facilities,’' DeSantis said in the video. “If we can redouble our efforts to protect the most vulnerable until the vaccine is deployed, we will help safeguard the lives of thousands of Floridians.”
COVID cases are still surging
The state has opened long-term care facilities to visitors under certain conditions and, the governor said he has “set aside an additional 500,000 rapid tests” so that “in the next few weeks all long-term care facilities will be able to test all staff, all visitors and all contractors.”
But in the last week, the Agency for Health Care Administration reported that things are not getting better at long-term care facilities but in fact are remaining steady with 1,480 residents testing positive as of Nov. 23 and 2,033 staff. Staff and resident testing and visitor screening protocols haven’t changed.
Meanwhile, the number of cases among people in the community over age 65, has been surging, with a 68 percent increase in the last two weeks, according to Jason Salemi, a biostatistician and professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
DeSantis repeated predictions from public health professionals that after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration meets on Dec. 10 to certify the first COVID-19 vaccines, distribution is expected to begin immediately.
The first round will be enough to inoculate 20 million Americans, DeSantis said, but he would not say how many of those Florida will get.
“That obviously is not going to be enough to vaccinate everyone right at the beginning, but there will be priorities set,’' he said. “In Florida, we are going to set priorities, focusing on specifically those most vulnerable elderly residents in long-term care facilities, as well as our front line healthcare workers who are interacting with vulnerable patients day in and day out as more vaccine becomes available.”
But who decides and what criteria will the state be using?
A draft vaccine distribution report released in October by the Florida Department of Health identified 223,000 staff and 145,000 residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities as well as 497,000 licensed healthcare professionals in the state who would be eligible for the vaccine if they agreed to take it.
The Florida Department of Health has asked nursing home and other elder-care facilities to register to administer the vaccine and the federal government has contracted with CVS and Walgreens to provide on-site vaccination clinics immediately.
Still waiting for vital details
For more than a month, the agency has been asked and has not answered how it is going to persuade reluctant healthcare professionals and residents to take the vaccine, and the governor has developed no messaging strategy for informing people about any potential side effects involved.
DeSantis used the video to repeat news reports that Florida hospitals have started receiving a monoclonal antibody Bamlanivimab treatment to prevent hospitalizations in COVID patients if administered early in their infection. And he noted that hospitals are also getting an antibody drug developed by Regeneron Pharmaceuticals, the drug used by Trump to help his immune system fight COVID-19.
But how much of the treatments will the state get and who decides are just some of the questions the Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times have asked the governor and state health officials for the last month, and received no response.
Among our questions and public records requests:
▪ Does the Florida Department of Health kept minutes or recordings of the meetings of the vaccine working group?
▪ Please provide a copy of the survey of hospitals, pharmacies, community health departments and emergency medical staff about vaccine distribution needs.
▪ Does the state have a vaccine distribution plan for prisoners and corrections staff?
▪ Which hospitals in Florida have you identified that have ultra-cold storage available needed by Pfizer?
▪ What criteria are used to decide which hospitals and which populations are selected for the first vaccine doses?
▪ How many “essential workers” has DOH identified to be part of the Phase 2 vaccination distribution? Who decides who will get it?
▪ The draft vaccination distribution plan says that GIS mapping is being done to “identify areas where there is a need to enroll additional providers.” Please provide a copy of that map.
Complicating the problem is the fact that governor’s chief of staff, Shane Strum, surprised many when he demoted the former public information officer for the Department of Health in October and has not appointed a replacement.
Meanwhile, DeSantis’ use of video messaging and his disappearance from public view in the face of media scrutiny is not a new tactic for governors.
In Kentucky, former Gov. Matt Bevin routinely shut out the state’s major media outlets, refusing to respond to reporters’ queries and instead used social media and radio interviews to bypass questions. Bevin lost a narrow re-election bid last year.
In Florida, former Gov. Rick Scott routinely sidestepped media questions , offered vague and incomplete answers and built barriers to transparency. But, unlike Bevin, Scott not only got re-elected, he was elevated to the U.S. Senate, also on a narrow vote.