LAKEWOOD RANCH — Residents of Lakewood Ranch and other well-off neighborhoods in East Manatee will have special access to COVID-19 vaccines, after Gov. Ron DeSantis reached out to Lakewood Ranch’s developer and offered to set up an exclusive vaccination site, according to Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh.
Baugh confirmed that health workers at the Premier Sports Campus site in Lakewood Ranch are scheduled to inoculate 1,000 residents a day from today to Friday.
“We’ll have 3,000 more residents receiving the vaccine,” Baugh said. “I think this is a positive all around.”
Not all county residents will be eligible for the shots. Instead, they are reserved solely for residents of the 34202 and 34211 zip codes, which cover most of the Manatee County portion of Lakewood Ranch and other wealthier neighborhoods in East Manatee not as hard hit by coronavirus infections as other parts of the county.
County officials have identified 7,285 residents who are eligible for the vaccines. According to a release, the county’s 311 center has begun calling residents to confirm appointments. Because the patients are selected from the Manatee Vaccine Standby Pool, these doses are only available for residents who are at least 65 years old.
“I chose those two zip codes because it is not just Lakewood Ranch but it’s part of Myakka City, Braden River and Rosedale,” Baugh explained. “Those two zip codes are huge areas that really encompass lots of southeast area of Manatee County, which is what the governor wanted to do.”
The two zip codes make up part of Baugh’s District 5. She said she was proud to see more vaccines become available for her constituents.
According to Baugh, the process began late last week when DeSantis called Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of the master-planned Lakewood Ranch community. Baugh said DeSantis sought to establish a vaccine site in the area and she began working with Jensen to finalize the details.
The temporary site at Premier Sports Campus, 5895 Post Blvd., Lakewood Ranch, will be staffed by the state’s own healthcare workers and the National Guard. The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office will assist with traffic control.
During a news conference Wednesday at Lakewood Ranch, DeSantis defended the distribution of the vaccine in Manatee. He noted that the 3,000 shots are in addition to the county’s regular weekly allotment. He suggested if residents didn’t like it, he could send the doses to other counties.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine putting this in counties that want it. We’re totally happy to do that,” DeSantis said. “Anyone that’s saying that, let us know if you want us to send it Sarasota or Charlotte or Pasco or wherever, let us know — we’re happy to do it.
“But I think most people — we have an opportunity to bring vaccine and do it efficiently — I think they’re going to want it,” he continued. “There’s folks that are going to complain about getting vaccines, I’ll tell you what, I’d be thankful because you know what? We didn’t need to do this at all. We saw a need and wanted to get the numbers up for seniors.”
COVID has hit harder in other parts of Manatee
Residents in 34202 and 34211 who have contracted the coronavirus make up about 8 percent of the county’s 30,557 confirmed coronavirus infections.
News of the site came as a shock to Baugh’s fellow commissioners. At least three said they were unaware of the process and shocked to hear that the site will cater exclusively to those living in parts of Baugh’s district.
“I’m totally shocked that one district commissioner fought for more vaccines for only their district. What about the rest of the county? I’m shocked that we would do this without even the board knowing about it,” said Commissioner Carol Whitmore, one of the county’s two at-large representatives.
“It doesn’t look good at all that one commissioner did that,” she continued.
Commissioner Misty Servia said she would prefer to see the state tackle other parts of the county that have been ravaged by the pandemic.
“For the life of me, I can’t understand why we would vaccinate the most affluent neighborhoods in the county ahead of everyone else, especially the underserved neighborhoods and large number of manufactured home parks in our community,” Servia wrote in a text message to the Bradenton Herald.
The two zip codes eligible for vaccines are also two of the county’s wealthiest. According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the median income in both zip codes is more than double the county’s overall median income.
According to the Florida Department of Health’s COVID-19 dashboard, those zip codes have also recorded fewer coronavirus infections compared to other parts of the county. In 34202, 1,010 residents have tested positive and 1,523 have tested positive in 34211.
Six other Manatee zip codes have each tallied more than 2,000 cases of COVID-19. The county’s most ravaged zip code is 34221 — which includes parts of Palmetto, Ellenton and West Bradenton — where more than 4,300 cases of COVID-19 have been recorded.
DeSantis launched a similar state-run vaccine site aimed at vaccinating more seniors in Venice last week. The site at Premier Sports Campus will pull patients who live in the targeted zip codes from the county’s Vaccine Standby Pool. The county’s own vaccination site picks patients from the standby pool at random, without special considerations given to a person’s zip code. Providing one’s zip code is not required to sign up for the county’s standby pool.
Baugh did not specify why DeSantis chose Lakewood Ranch instead of other parts of the county. She said any effort to get more seniors vaccinated should be commended.
“People need to look at the statistics. There have been other clinics and many people out east haven’t received the vaccines and are underserved. I see it as a win-win,” Baugh said. “This is not a negative situation.”
Commissioners debate ‘optics’ of zip code selection
Speaking at Tuesday’s public work session meeting, however, several commissioners said they were disappointed in Baugh’s decision and her lack of communication with the board.
“My concern with this is that I’ve been fighting like hell to show people that the lottery is equal and we cannot compromise the system and all of a sudden, someone is telling me we were able to pull a certain demographic out,” said Commissioner Reggie Bellamy.
As Bellamy demanded answers about how the program was put together, County Administrator Cheri Coryea said she made a suggestion to handle the vaccine selection randomly, just like the county does for its own vaccination site. Baugh reaffirmed that it was her decision to choose the particular zip codes.
“You have to understand the optics are horrible. We have people struggling with the virus. If we were going to pick and choose, I would hope it would go to the under-served populations and neighborhoods,” Servia added. “You’re taking the whitest demographic, the richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else.”
Other commissioners were more understanding. They said they weren’t happy with the process but said they appreciated the additional vaccines entering the community.
“Our county is getting what our county is getting. Anything extra, I’m not going to complain about,” said Commissioner James Satcher. “Every person in the standby pool is better off after this.”
“We all would’ve done the same thing Commissioner Baugh did. If somebody came to me and said they were going to vaccinate 3,000 people in your district, I would’ve jumped on it,” Commissioner Kevin Van Ostenbridge added.
After an hour of debate, Baugh defended her decision and said she “took responsibility” for any complaints from residents and her fellow commissioners. Moving forward, Bellamy urged commissioners to refrain from choosing certain zip codes for future pop-up sites.
“I’ve taken full responsibility for it,” Baugh said. “We did it the best way we could with short notice.”
Governor reaches out
Jensen said he was “minding his own business” on Feb. 9 when he got a call from local developer Pat Neal. Also on the line was Gov. DeSantis.
“The governor told me he was very interested in increasing the number of vaccines available in Manatee County and wanted to help with a large community to help offset the backlog,” Jensen said.
DeSantis offered National Guard personnel to direct people and Florida Department of Health workers to administer the vaccines, but they needed a way to sign people up for the pop-up event. Jensen was asked if he could host the pop-up in a couple of his Lakewood Ranch communities, he said.
Jensen declined, saying he feared this would anger all those in the remaining 30 to 40 communities in Lakewood Ranch.
The decision was made to enlist the county, so Jensen said he would reach out to Baugh.
“It came together rather quickly. There were four days of conversation on logistics,” Jensen said. “She led all that.”
Jensen said his role was just to help the governor get these vaccine to people in the community he said conversations on Tuesday about the vaccine event had “gone off the rails.”
“This is a big deal, it’s a good deal. I don’t really care, as long as we get needles in arms,” Jensen said. “This is biological warfare.”
“Its not about a discussion of politics,” he said. “It’s not a discussion about groups. It’s about getting vaccines out into the public.”
Ryan Callihan and Jessica De Leon are staff writers with the Bradenton Herald