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DeSantis welcomes coronavirus vaccine to Tampa: ‘Today, we will have shots going in arms’

20,000 doses of the vaccine arrived Monday at Tampa General Hospital
Gov Ron DeSantis reacts after Vanessa Arroyo, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital, received her first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 in Tampa.
Gov Ron DeSantis reacts after Vanessa Arroyo, a nurse at Tampa General Hospital, received her first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine, on Monday, Dec. 14, 2020 in Tampa. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Dec. 14, 2020|Updated Dec. 14, 2020

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis welcomed 20,000 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to Tampa General Hospital on Monday morning, calling their arrival a “historic” achievement in the fight against the pandemic.

“Today, we will have shots going in arms,” DeSantis said. “We will have health care workers getting vaccinated much faster than anyone could have anticipated six months ago. God bless America.”

Moments later, DeSantis watched a 31-year-old nurse receive the first dosage of the vaccine in the Tampa Bay area through a shot administered in her left arm.

DeSantis has anticipated this moment for weeks. Since the election, DeSantis’ limited public remarks have focused on Florida’s readiness for the vaccine. Last week, DeSantis traveled to the White House as President Donald Trump’s top advisers touted the administration’s work in its development through a program called Operation Warp Speed.

But questions remain about DeSantis’ plan to get the vaccine to Floridians. DeSantis has outlined a general strategy — front-line health care workers and nursing home and assisted living facilities first, seniors and at-risk populations next and the general population last — however, his office and the Department of Health have declined to make public the state’s distribution plan.

The blueprint was due to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Dec. 4. It is supposed to explain the state’s strategy for the colossal logistical task of rapidly administering hundreds of thousands of doses of the vaccine. This vaccine, from Pfizer-BioNTech, presents unique challenges because it requires refrigeration at -70 degrees Celsius and patients are directed to get a follow up shot three weeks later.

On Friday, DeSantis made a surprising suggestion: use the second recommended dosage to vaccinate more Floridians. It’s not clear if this idea, which came during an event on mental health in Tampa and has been advanced in the Wall Street Journal by a neurologist, is part of the state’s vaccination strategy. DeSantis did not elaborate on Monday and he left the news conference without taking any questions.

Pfizer-BioNTech reported that its vaccine candidate had a 95 percent effectiveness against coronavirus when two doses are administered. Another vaccine candidate from Moderna also requires a follow-up shot. A single dose reduces the effectiveness of the

izer-BioNTech vaccine to about 50 percent.

A third potential vaccine from Johnson & Johnson requires only a single dosage, but that option remains in trials and is unlikely to be available until early next year.

After the event, Fred Piccolo, a spokesman for DeSantis, affirmed that the governor plans to get the vaccine but “does not want to jump people in line.” DeSantis, though, will not mandate the vaccine in Florida.

“He absolutely believes it’s safe and will encourage people to take it,” Piccolo said.

The vaccine’s arrival has provided hope to the American public after more than 300,000 lives have been lost this year to the virus. Florida is amid its deadliest stretch of the pandemic since early October, and the state’s death toll has climbed past 20,000.

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“This is 20,000 doses of hope,” said John Couris, President and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, said Monday. “This is the beginning to the end. This is monumental if you’re sitting in our shoes caring for the patients who need us the most.”

Even as he celebrated the unprecedented speed of the vaccine’s development, DeSantis downplayed the rising rate of infections in Florida. During his news conference, DeSantis highlighted that Florida this month has ranked among the bottom 10 of all states in cases, deaths and hospitalizations per capita. Those figures, though, ignore that Florida is faring comparatively better because the outbreak is so much worse in other states.

The White House coronavirus task force has warned that there remains community spread in all corners of the state and has suggested Florida should consider closing indoor dining and bars. DeSantis, though, has vowed to keep everything open. On Friday he attended a crowded high school football in the Panhandle. Later Monday, he planned to welcome lawmakers to the governor’s mansion for a Christmas party.

The vials arrived in Tampa via FedEx at 10 a.m. By Tuesday morning, Tampa General and four other Florida hospitals will have 100,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the first to receive emergency authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. CVS and Walgreens as well as the state will have another 80,000 doses ready by the end of the week to hand out to Florida’s most vulnerable residents in nursing homes and other senior long-term care facilities.

DeSantis said he expects the federal government to approve another vaccine candidate from Moderna by the end of the week, and 365,000 doses will arrive in the state just ahead of the Christmas holiday.

In all, Florida could receive between 700,000 and 1 million doses by the end of the year, depending on Pfizer-BioNTech’s production capabilities, DeSantis said.

Couris and others at Tampa General credited DeSantis with helping the state’s hospitals obtain the treatments and equipment that allowed them to reach this moment without being overwhelmed.

“It’s hard to describe when you’re in the darkest moment of the pandemic what a relief it was when we would need anything you seemed to be able to deliver,” said Dr. Charles Lockwood, dean of the Morsani College of Medicine at University of South Florida Health.

Lockwood, though, cautioned people that the fight doesn’t end with the vaccine’s arrival.

“We’re in the last few minutes of the fourth quarter. We have (Tom) Brady as our quarterback,” Lockwood said. “Please keep wearing masks, social distancing, avoid large gatherings. It is incredibly important. We’re almost there.”

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