Leadership lags in Florida while the coronavirus rages | Editorial
‘Stay tuned’ is not a public health or communications strategy.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Monday at a news conference in Longwood about Florida's coronavirus vaccination efforts.
Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Monday at a news conference in Longwood about Florida's coronavirus vaccination efforts. [ The Florida Channel ]
This article represents the opinion of the Tampa Bay Times Editorial Board.
Published Jan. 4, 2021

Florida entered the first full week of the New Year in the worst of both worlds, with the pandemic raging and the state’s response half-formed and hesitant. Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday announced several new steps, but none are especially robust, creative or brimming with urgency. It’s time the governor offered Floridians a clearer plan for moving forward and solid assurances that local health care systems will be up to the job.

Figures released last week showed that Florida had administered fewer than one-fourth of the 784,000 doses of vaccine distributed to the state. Some of those doses may have been in transit, and DeSantis said that lower staffing levels at hospitals over the holidays may also have contributed to fewer than expected inoculations. But the state knew for weeks that a vaccine was on its way and had plenty of time to set up a plan to ensure that every available dose was administered quickly. This is a massive public safety crisis. Surely, the state could have found additional qualified medical professionals to handle the shots even over a holiday.

Appearing at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital, the governor announced Monday that the state would open new vaccination sites, including drive-through facilities, and that it would activate an additional 1,000 nurses statewide to help with inoculations. To counter public concerns that vaccines are languishing in hospital refrigerators, DeSantis also announced that health care providers would have to distribute their shots in a timely manner, or else those supplies would be redirected to other facilities.

These steps are more about window dressing and assigning blame than taking charge. Local governments had already taken the lead on converting large public venues such as stadium sites into vaccination centers. And providing each of the 67 counties with an average of 15 additional nurses is hardly a game-changer. More to the point, the governor peppered his announcement Monday with teases about how he would be announcing additional steps later this week. That only underscored the makeshift nature of the state’s response and its failure to communicate with Floridians about the plan for expanding vaccinations in the weeks and months ahead. And again, the governor and his team have had months to plan for the eventual rollout of a vaccine. Why is so much being done on the fly now?

DeSantis said he would announce new ventures with the private sector and plans for making vaccinations more accessible. Left unsaid was any plan for helping counties and cities deal with the crushing demand for vaccines, for helping Floridians navigate the process of reserving a shot or for clarifying when younger residents might expect inoculations to become available. That’s left the counties on their own to distribute vaccines in a hodgepodge fashion; within minutes of going live Monday morning, Hillsborough County’s registration website for seniors hoping to get the vaccine crashed, apparently due to the heavy volume. Pinellas County’s online portal for seniors was overloaded Monday and shut down, too. Some counties had also warned that their supplies were reserved for local residents, a policy the governor Monday said was inappropriate. That type of confusion is what happens in a leadership void when the state does not anticipate obvious questions or offer clear direction.

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Why in January, with the vaccines rolling out, are the logistics and communication so far behind? Florida is setting new records for infections, and deaths and hospitalizations have roared upward in this winter surge. The state’s positivity rate has climbed and experts predict the situation to worsen in the coming weeks. And the images of packed New Year’s Eve celebrations in the Tampa Bay area and elsewhere portend a bleak few weeks across Florida. A dean of the University of South Florida Morsani College of Medicine said he doesn’t anticipate the numbers improving before February.

With vaccines scarce, residents at least deserve a steady stream of reliable information from the state about what’s going on. Will Florida use mobile units to vaccinate residents who cannot drive or don’t own a vehicle? Should the deployment of the Florida National Guard be expanded to vastly ramp up inoculations? What’s the plan for major employers to vaccinate at the workplace? Should Florida field a volunteer corps of health care, law enforcement and other relevant professionals to help with logistics? And what’s the plan for communicating that the vaccines are safe and effective, especially with skeptics and hard-to-reach communities? The governor’s mid-day appearances on the Florida Channel won’t cut it. The anxiety and confusion have built to critical mass and ultimately will work against the vaccination effort.

Editorials are the institutional voice of the Tampa Bay Times. The members of the Editorial Board are Times Chairman and CEO Paul Tash, Editor of Editorials Graham Brink, and editorial writers Elizabeth Djinis, John Hill and Jim Verhulst. Follow @TBTimes_Opinion on Twitter for more opinion news