DeSantis dropped off 3,000 vaccines to a Pinellas senior community. But was the distribution fair?

The public clamored for the shots, inundating the community with thousands of calls.
The entrance to Mainlands of Tamarac is seen Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 in Pinellas Park.
The entrance to Mainlands of Tamarac is seen Monday, Feb. 17, 2020 in Pinellas Park. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]
Published March 3, 2021|Updated March 3, 2021

PINELLAS PARK — Gov. Ron DeSantis held a press conference on Feb. 18 at the Mainlands of Tamarac by the Gulf, announcing the arrival of 3,000 vaccines for the Pinellas Park senior community. But the process that followed after the cameras were turned off was chaotic and questioned by some.

Pinellas County officials were in the dark when DeSantis showed up with the vaccines, and the task of finding 3,000 people to vaccinate on short notice fell to the Mainlands community. Residents and volunteers notified their senior friends and neighbors. And the complex, which had requested the clinic, was bombarded with phone calls.

The site ultimately gave out 2,258 doses over three days, according to the state, but advocates question whether this system for selecting vaccine recipients was fair when 70,000 people in Pinellas County remain on a vaccine waiting list.

“It seems to me that the opportunity here was to pull from that list to fill in the gaps between the number of shots they had and the number of people who were Mainlands residents who were already rearing to go,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP.

The state Division of Emergency Management and Florida Department of Health give out shots every week at senior-living communities like the Mainlands, according to Jason Mahon, spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“Governor DeSantis was proud to visit Pinellas Park,” Mahon said. “The state worked closely with community partners to make this site a reality to serve some of Florida’s most vulnerable residents.”

The Mainlands community was notified it would host a pop-up vaccine clinic on Feb. 16, said property manager Joe Polkowski.

“The short notice kind of hurt, but we managed to pull it together, and we and the residents are very grateful that it was done,” Polkowski said.

The clinic initially was going to be only for the 65-and-older portion of the community’s more than 3,000 residents. But after DeSantis announced it and calls flooded in, organizers opened it to the public — offering walk-up appointments and over-the-phone registration. In the end, 862 Mainlands residents were vaccinated, he said.

“Our number got out there everywhere — Facebook, Nextdoor and everything,” Polkowski said. “We just had thousands upon thousands of phone calls. And we weren’t really set up for something like that, but we managed to make it work.”

A friend called Mary Doyle, a Safety Harbor retiree who already was vaccinated, to tell her that appointments were available at the Mainlands. Doyle and two friends registered 10 seniors from outside the community and referred dozens more to the site, she said.

“I was happy for everybody that got vaccinated,” Doyle said. “But frankly, the people that got vaccinated are the people I know, not the underserved people that don’t have access to internet, and it’s still very discriminatory in terms of function.”

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“It’s the wild west out there,” Doyle added.

The state has set up 17 temporary vaccination sites, primarily in senior communities, and 57 at faith-based locations, according to lists provided by the state. As of Friday, Florida had vaccinated nearly 48 percent of residents 65 and older.

But some critics say the neighborhood clinics allow for only those with connections, transportation and telephone access to get vaccinations.

There have been other controversies as well. The day before he appeared at the Mainlands, DeSantis set up a clinic in Manatee County’s Lakewood Ranch restricted to residents of two wealthy zip codes. The Bradenton Herald later reported that a county commissioner and a politically connected developer helped arrange the site and created a VIP list for vaccinations.

Pinellas County officials said they were not involved with the Mainlands clinic.

“I have no idea how that one came about,” said County Commissioner Kathleen Peters. “It’s my district, and they didn’t call me. I’m really in the dark on this one.”

Seniors in Pinellas County can sign up for shots through an online portal that puts them on a digital waiting list. When the county receives vaccines from the state, people on the waiting list are notified in the order they signed up. The county and local Department of Health office also arrange temporary vaccination sites with a focus on underserved communities.

As of Feb. 28, in Pinellas County, 7 percent of Black residents 15 and older have received at least one vaccine dose, compared with 15 percent of white residents. Hispanic Pinellas residents fared slightly worse with nearly 5 percent having received at least one dose.

When vaccines became available at the Mainlands, the county system was bypassed.

“The way we do it, there’s nobody that gets to cut the line,” said Pinellas County administrator Barry Burton. “We have a strict protocol. But the ones with the state, we can’t control that.”

Pop-up clinics are a good idea, as many are in underserved areas, Johnson said, but the Mainlands clinic should have been coordinated to get the doses to residents already on the county’s waiting list.

“They could be really helpful if they’re integrated into the local effort to vaccinate people,” Johnson said.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Allison Ross contributed to this report.

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