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Hospital, county contradict Gov. Ron DeSantis over Keys vaccines

The governor has come under increasing criticism for choosing who gets special allotments of coronavirus vaccines in Florida.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press after giving his State of the State speech on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee on March 2.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the press after giving his State of the State speech on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee on March 2. [ TORI LYNN SCHNEIDER/TALLAHASSEE DEMOCRAT | AP ]
Published Mar. 6
Updated Mar. 6

After Gov. Ron DeSantis claimed “the state was not involved” in arranging for more than 1,200 Keys residents in the wealthy Ocean Reef community to get accelerated access to the COVID-19 vaccine in January, both Baptist Health South Florida — which supplied the doses — and Monroe County have contradicted his claims, saying the distribution was authorized by the state.

“It is our understanding that the Medical Center at Ocean Reef asked the State of Florida for vaccine doses, and the State of Florida asked Baptist Health to take delivery of the doses to our ultra-cold freezer storage for delivery to the Medical Center at Ocean Reef,’' said Dori A. Alvarez, spokesperson for Baptist Health Systems in a statement to the Herald/Times late Friday.

According to a Jan. 22 newsletter sent to residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club and obtained by the Miami Herald, the Medical Center at Ocean Reef reported: “Over the course of the last two weeks, the Medical Center has vaccinated over 1200 homeowners who qualify under the State of Florida’s Governor’s current Order for those individuals who are 65 years of age or older. We are fortunate to have received enough vaccines to ensure both the first and second for those vaccinated.”

The message also acknowledged that doses were in short supply: “At this time, however, the majority of the State has not received an allocation of first doses of vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear.”

The governor has come under increasing criticism for establishing himself as the gatekeeper of vaccine distribution in Florida, as he directed doses to select communities while his political committee raised more than $3.9 million from donors, some of whom are affiliated with the vaccine locations.

At a news conference on March 4, DeSantis chose his words carefully. He denied that the Ocean Reef was a “state site” but did not deny that he or the Florida Division of Emergency Management, which distributes vaccines, had a role in authorizing it to be one of the early sites. DeSantis and FDEM have refused to publicly release the criteria used to select the timing and locations of the vaccine distribution.

“That was not a state site,’' DeSantis told reporters “It was not anything that the state set up. It was done through one of the hospital systems that had vaccine.”

He added, “my view is is, if you’re 65 and up, I’m not worried about your income bracket, I’m worried about your age bracket, because it’s the age, not the income that shows the risk.”

Hospital CEO owns home there

But questions remain about how Ocean Reef was authorized to receive the early doses at a time when supply was scarce. Baptist Health System President and CEO Brian Keeley and his wife own a home in Ocean Reef, which is valued at $1. 7 million, according to Monroe County property records.

Alvarez, the Baptist Health spokesperson, refused to comment on whether Keeley was instrumental in getting a pilot program in early January for his Ocean Reef neighbors to get access to the doses. On Jan. 19, Just three days prior to the Ocean Reef email to residents, Baptist Health was forced to cancel appointments for hundreds of members of the general public who had signed up to get a vaccination because it had run out of supply.

Alvarez also would not comment on whether the vaccine distribution to Ocean Reef contributed to the shortage experienced by Baptist Health.

“As we have said, our mission is to get as many shots out as we can, as safely and as fast as we can, based on guidance from the State and vaccine availability,’' she said.

The discrepancies have prompted the state’s top Democratic officials to ask the FBI to investigate.

County contradicts governor

Monroe County Commissioner Mike Forster also confirmed that the state was in charge of the vaccine distribution to Ocean Reef.

“The where, when and how many vaccines that are shot in the arms of my constituents are first decided at the state level to wherever they determine is highest and best use, and are also allocated to our Health Department, which is state run, and our Emergency Management,’' he told the Miami Herald.

Foster said that the county was not asked to weigh in on the allocation and distribution of the vaccines, but many people were aware that Ocean Reef was among the first to be getting them.

“I, and I’m sure others, heard murmurs as to my constituents in Ocean Reef getting vaccines,’' he said. “But, I can tell you unequivocally, that I never saw anything that was facilitated by anyone in the county.”

State parses words

Asked to comment on the finger-pointing, a spokesperson for the FDEM issued a statement Saturday that did not deny the state’s role but said the state “never directed” Baptist Health to open the site at Ocean Reef.

“To be clear, neither the Division of Emergency Management nor the Department of Health ever directed Baptist Health to open a POD [point of distribution] in Ocean Reef,’' said Jason Mahon, spokesperson for both DEM and the Florida Department of Health. “Any statement to the contrary is false.”

The governor has held events highlighting select pop-up vaccine distribution sites in communities linked to wealthy donors, but he has also held events in communities in neighborhoods serving primary Black and Hispanic residents, whose vaccination rate is much lower than the state average.

Last month, a high-end community that Republican fundraiser Pat Neal helped develop was chosen by DeSantis to host a pop-up vaccination clinic near Bradenton. Only people from two ZIP codes were eligible to receive the vaccine at the Lakewood Ranch site, and names were chosen by Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who included herself on her vaccine selection list.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer on Thursday urged the U.S. Department of Justice to look into whether the $3.9 million in contributions made to the governor’s political committee since December were connected to favorable treatment for vaccine distribution.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,’' Fried said.

DeSantis and the Florida Department of Health released a draft vaccination distribution plan written in October, but the governor has since abandoned those recommendations, which would have given a priority to front-line healthcare workers over all residents ages 65 and over.

For two months, reporters have asked the DeSantis administration to release the location and criteria used to distribute vaccines but it has refused, suggesting instead that the public trust its word.

The Florida Department of Health has released some documents to the Herald/Times Tallahassee bureau, but the records do not include complete details about whether and when vaccines were distributed. For example, they show that one-fourth of all vaccines went to Publix supermarkets. While the state did not know in advance where Publix was sending doses, it did learn afterward and adjusted allocations based on that.

Public health experts now say the governor isn’t moving fast enough to make more people eligible for the vaccine, and it has led to an unused supply.

Raising millions

Meanwhile, disclosure reports for DeSantis’ political committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis, show that since December the governor has raised $3.9 million, including $2.7 million in February alone when he was focusing on the pop-up vaccination sites. DeSantis is expected to seek re-election in 2022 but has not formally announced his candidacy.

One resident of Ocean Reef, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR, wrote a $250,000 check on Feb. 25, a week after his 65th birthday which then made him eligible for the vaccine in Florida, according to the Chicago Tribune.

At the March 4 news conference, DeSantis indirectly acknowledged the connection. “Do you know, has he even been vaccinated?” he asked, referring to Rauner.

Miami Herald reporter Daniel Chang contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at meklas@miamiherald.com and @MaryEllenKlas

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Transcript from Gov. Ron DeSantis’ March 4 news conference

“Well one, the Miami Herald article was a train wreck. That was not a site that we were involved in in the Keys. What that was was one of the South Florida hospital systems, went and went to this community and vaccinated a bunch of seniors.

“I think that’s great. I want seniors to get shots. I think they did a good job doing that. We just weren’t involved with it in any way shape or form. In the initial few three or four weeks, as you remember, the hospitals were getting the lion’s share of the vaccine. We had nursing homes. We had hospitals. Some of the county health departments started to get them at the end of December, which you really didn’t see the big push even in the counties until January.

“So that was something that one of the systems went. They went on site. They did 1,000 to 2,000, however many seniors. And my view is if you’re 65 and up, I’m not worried about your income bracket, I’m worried about your age bracket, because it’s the age, not the income that shows the risk. And so they were able to go in a community that is heavily senior and vaccinate people, that’s very, very good.

“But for that article to suggest that somehow that was one of our sites, that’s just factually wrong. I think it was good that they did it. I support the hospitals doing that and really being proactive, and trying to reach as many seniors as possible. But it was a really, really poorly executed hit piece, and what they’re trying to do, they’re trying to concoct manufactured narratives, but they don’t have the facts to back it up and that’s a perfect example of that.

“So it was a major failure, and you know we’re happy that the hospitals were doing that. But again, that wasn’t one of our sites.”

Asked about a contribution from Ocean Reef resident, Bruce Rauner, the former Republican governor of Illinois and former chairman of the Chicago-based private equity firm GTCR, who wrote a $250,000 check on Feb. 25, DeSantis said:

“We had nothing to do with it. The state was not involved with that. And I don’t know, do you know has he even been vaccinated? Do you know? OK, so I mean literally they’re just trying to indulge in conspiracy theories, but that was not a state site. It was not anything that the state set up. it was done through one of the hospital systems that had vaccine. They thought it made sense to go and do 65 and plus, and I think it was a smart decision to do that.

“And they’ve done other things I’m sure in other parts of the community as well but it wasn’t a state site and so that article was just flat wrong.”