“Who’s in charge?” Desantis’ hands-off governing sows confusion in vaccine rollout

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ governing style continues to frustrate Floridians during the pandemic.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right rear, watches as Carlos Dennis, left, 65, rolls up his sleeve so that Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue paramedic, Capt. Javier Crespo, can administer a COVID-19 vaccine shot, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right rear, watches as Carlos Dennis, left, 65, rolls up his sleeve so that Miami-Dade County Fire Rescue paramedic, Capt. Javier Crespo, can administer a COVID-19 vaccine shot, Monday, Jan. 4, 2021, at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee) [ WILFREDO LEE | AP ]
Published Jan. 5, 2021|Updated Jan. 6, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — When Gov. Ron DeSantis held a Monday news conference to announce seven “community vaccination sites” run by Orlando Health, he urged elderly Floridians to register at the hospital chain’s website.

“To receive a vaccine at one of Orlando health’s locations, you just have to visit and register online,” he said. “Of course, supply is still limited, so we ask that you bear with us.”

His instructions were incorrect. A spokeswoman for the hospital chain later clarified that the online portal DeSantis cited only allowed local front line health care workers, hospital employees, their families and residents and staff of long term care facilities to register — not the general public.

Ten months into the coronavirus pandemic, DeSantis’ hands-off governing style is still frustrating Floridians, health care industry groups and elected officials. Where they struggled to decipher the governor’s vague or conflicting orders at the start of the pandemic, they’re now scrambling to adapt to his ever-changing vaccination strategy.

In the last month, mayors in Miami-Dade have begged DeSantis for a phone call. Long-term care facilities resorted to contacting the media to get the governor’s attention. State hospital officials, including DeSantis’ former health secretary, continued to assert that his decision to have hospitals vaccinate the public saddled them with an unprecedented logistical task with COVID-19 hospitalizations surging.

The result has led to desperate seniors flooding health department websites and tying up phone lines, signing up for fake vaccine appointments and sleeping in their cars outside public health centers, embarrassing images of incompetence and confusion for the nation’s third-largest state.

“We don’t really know what to do,” said Mary Ann Carlson, a 77-year-old from Pompano Beach who called a Times/Herald reporter because it was the only phone number she could find, aside from her local CVS. “It changes every day.”

Florida is not alone in encountering chaos and confusion during the largest vaccine rollout in American history. The federal government controls the number of vaccines distributed, and it’s drastically downsized original estimates. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who DeSantis often criticizes, has also struggled to communicate changing plans.

But for DeSantis, a little-known congressman with no executive experience before becoming governor in 2019, confusion has been a constant since March, when the pandemic tested his insular management style. As he issued vague or conflicting orders, made erroneous claims and echoed President Donald Trump on a variety of issues, he saw his poll numbers drop and criticism rise.

Much of the rollout’s disarray can be traced to a lack of transparency. DeSantis publicly released just one plan disclosing how vaccines would be distributed in Florida — and it was a thinly-detailed draft from October. Once the vaccines debuted, he quickly deviated from it. He announced in late December that Floridians 65 and older would be the first in the general population to be vaccinated, ahead of essential workers and younger people with underlying health conditions, as the draft states.

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Meanwhile, DeSantis has filled the void with sporadic and confrontational news conferences. During one distracting exchange on Monday, DeSantis berated a CNN reporter for making what he called a “speech.” On Tuesday, he avoided the media, meeting with top officials at Tampa General Hospital and holding a news conference at an Ocala Publix while notifying a select few reporters. His office emailed his schedule just before 5:30 p.m. — well after the day’s events.

The overall lack of details on such a massive logistical challenge has frustrated many.

“I read through (the October plan) a million times trying to find the fine print. There’s no fine print,” said Severine Petras, CEO and co-founder of Priority Life Care, which manages 30 long-term care facilities in 10 states, including five in Florida. “If I were to put a plan like that together for my evacuation plans, or for generators, like the state made us do, we’d have been shut down.”

She said that in Indiana, where the company is based, her staff has been able to reserve vaccine appointments through a single state website. Florida requires people go to individual county websites to make appointments.

Petras said her Florida facilities had vaccination appointments scheduled by CVS, then abruptly canceled. When she asked why, she said the company’s representative blamed it on the governor’s office. (They’ve since been rescheduled.)

“They literally responded that the governor’s office didn’t make assisted living facilities a priority,” she said “It’s like, who’s in charge of this?”

DeSantis’ office has also been unable, or unwilling, to say how many vaccine doses Florida has received and where they’ve been distributed. He’s given conflicting information on who will be vaccinated and when. Neither his office nor the Department of Health have communications directors to help inform the press and public about his strategy.

And like he did at the start of the pandemic, DeSantis has shifted responsibility for the vaccine rollout to county health departments and local hospitals, overwhelming them with demand while simultaneously threatening to take away vaccine doses from hospitals that don’t administer them fast enough. The county health departments in Florida report to the state health department in Tallahassee, not to county government officials.

“The web sites are crashing because each individual jurisdiction has their own web site or a phone line,” said state Sen. Linda Stewart, D-Orlando. “It’s as confusing as it could possibly get.”

For the last week, Ken Dubbin, 67, a former cruise industry executive from Coral Gables, tried to get information about Miami-Dade vaccination plans, keeping the Jackson Health website open all weekend and waiting for it to “flip the switch” on vaccination appointments. On Tuesday, it worked. He was able to schedule an appointment for Tuesday afternoon.

While his vaccination went smoothly, he said the problem with the rollout has been a failure of communication from the top.

“I was in corporate America for 40 years, and for some things it makes sense to decentralize, but some things it doesn’t,” Dubbin said. “Had the state created a template that counties could modify for their needs, it would have been a lot smoother.”

DeSantis on Monday avoided any mention of the problems with the vaccine rollout — the long lines, the inconsistent messaging and the crashed websites. DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said the governor was working with hospitals, health care providers and local hospitals, and he ordered the state Division of Emergency Management to help with the rollout.

“Demanding accountability isn’t always popular, but thankfully, Governor DeSantis is more focused on doing the right thing,” she said in a statement. “While it’s unfortunate that certain individuals are detracting from this all important mission, Governor DeSantis is more interested in results.”

One of DeSantis’ unannounced visits on Tuesday was to visit Tampa General Hospital CEO John Couris, who said afterward that the governor was identifying and fixing the problems.

“There’s no playbook for this type of public health crisis,” Couris said. “So we’ve been writing the playbook as we go.”

While there’s no playbook, public health experts said planning and clear communication can alleviate much of the frustration.

“In basic public health, in vaccinology, it’s well recognized that vaccine rollouts require extensive planning and communication,” said Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida. “It’s not just, ‘We’ll dump the vials of vaccine on your back steps and we’ll figure out what to do next.”

“Not many states really appear to have done the months of preparation necessary for a massive vaccination campaign. We’re seeing that in the state of Florida.”

Times staff writer Megan Reeves contributed to this report.