Florida police, firefighters and teachers over 50 to get vaccine, DeSantis says

But many details remain unclear.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. [ SAM NAVARRO | Miami Herald ]
Published March 1, 2021|Updated March 2, 2021

TALLAHASSEE — Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Monday that he would expand coronavirus vaccine eligibility to people aged 50 or older who are K-12 school employees, sworn law enforcement officers or firefighters.

The change will go into effect Wednesday, according to an executive order later released by his office.

The announcement — the first time DeSantis has expanded vaccine eligibility since December — was made in passing at an event at the Florida Capitol intended to spotlight legislation that cracks down on foreign influence in state institutions. DeSantis did not take questions at the event, leaving some confused about exactly who was included in the new policy and how it would work in practice.

For example, the executive order noted that sworn law enforcement officers are eligible for the vaccine. Matt Puckett, the executive director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, said he didn’t know whether that meant corrections officers would be eligible for the vaccine.

A DeSantis spokeswoman later confirmed that the executive order would not cover corrections officers.

DeSantis said an expected shipment of 175,000 doses of the newly approved one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week would probably be enough to cover all newly eligible Floridians.

Florida has about 141,000 teachers and school employees between the ages of 50 and 65, state records show. The state has more than 13,000 sworn law enforcement officers in that age range as well, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said last week.

Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said he was glad to see teachers and school staff getting prioritized for vaccines but said it should be for all educators, not just those 50 or older. Spar questioned why pre-K staff who work in elementary schools were not included.

“The governor should make sure everyone who works in our public schools has access to vaccines,” Spar said. “While I see this as a step in the right direction, we certainly think the governor needs to do more.”

Elizabeth Strom, a professor at the University of South Florida’s School of Public Affairs, wondered Monday why university instructors like herself weren’t included in the governor’s executive order. The state has mandated for months that she and her colleagues offer university students in-person instruction. She’s 62 years old. Yet she would be turned away from a vaccination site.

“If the state is requiring me to be in a classroom, I don’t understand why I would be in a different category than other classroom teachers,” Strom said.

In recent months, DeSantis has often touted his “seniors first” approach and has proudly pointed to the fact that about three-quarters of people vaccinated in the state have been in this older age bracket.

On Monday, DeSantis pointed to what he said was softening demand for the coronavirus vaccine among the 65 and older population as a reason for expanding eligibility. As proof, he said Publix’s online appointments weren’t filling up as quickly as they once were.

Still, there are plenty of seniors continuing to clamor for shots. As of Monday, just over half of the state’s 65-and-older population had received at least one dose of a vaccine.

With this latest order, Floridians eligible to get a coronavirus vaccine are: long-term care facility residents and staff; people aged 65 and older; frontline health care workers; and sworn law enforcement, K-12 employees and firefighters aged 50 or older.

Those with health conditions that make them “extremely vulnerable” to the coronavirus are eligible for a vaccine, as well. Originally, people in this group were only eligible to get doses from hospitals. But DeSantis signed an executive order Friday allowing physicians to also vaccinate people in this group and for pharmacies and some registered nurses to give doses if a physician determines a person meets the criteria.

Related: DeSantis order expands coronavirus vaccine options for high-risk people under 65

Much still remains unclear about how that will work in practice. Monday’s executive order added another layer of confusion by saying that doctors must attest in a statement that the patient meets the “defined eligibility criteria established by a form prescribed by the Florida Department of Health.”

Spokespeople for the governor’s office and the Florida Department of Health did not respond to a request for a copy of this form.