A Vaccine-for-Donations Scandal? Or More Political Mud-Slinging?
Several weeks ago, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis came under fire for allegedly giving early vaccine privileges to wealthy donors. The scandal divided the state in comment threads on social media platforms, with Republican voters shrugging off the accusations and Democratic voters taking issue with it. One such person involved in the accusations is former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner, a Republican who donated $250,000 to Ron DeSantis.
The donations came only about a month after his community received thousands of vaccines, enough for 1,200 residents of the affluent area of Key Largo. As this all unfolded, Floridians in other areas struggled to get their hands on vaccines, with long waiting lines at grocery stores like Publix and other vaccine sites, like CVS and other pharmacies. Even now, Publix will receive 1 out of every 4 vaccine doses, reports the Tampa Bay Times, but the state has no idea where the doses will go.
But Bruce Rauner wasn't the only person to make a hefty donation to DeSantis after his area, the Ocean Reef Club, received an abundance of vaccine doses. More than a dozen people so far are also believed to have given DeSantis massive donations right after the club was given its doses.
You may remember that Governor Ron DeSantis made headlines when he opted to prioritize Florida seniors over front-line workers. This was a touchy issue when it came up. On the one hand, seniors are the most vulnerable to the virus, with the risk of death rising alongside age. On the other hand, front-line workers, teachers, and students may be significantly more likely to contract the virus and to pass it along to other people. On the one hand, you want to protect those people most at risk in the state. On the other hand, you want to stop the spread so you can keep the total number of cases down globally. Ron DeSantis, and by extension Florida, opted for the former choice. It seems we don't really know if there is a "right" answer to this question.
But one thing is for certain: under no circumstances, providing the accusations against DeSantis are true, should wealthy donors should be prioritized in the vaccine schedule. Not even wealthy areas.
Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for the Ron DeSantis governorship, denied the accusations, telling the Miami Harald:
“This was not a state-supported senior community POD [point of distribution], nor was it requested by the governor. The state has utilized a variety of approaches including walk-up, drive-thru, and faith-based initiatives to ensure vaccine access to all eligible Floridians, particularly in underserved communities. These efforts have resulted in Florida vaccinating over 50% of our state’s senior population — the highest of any state in the nation.”
Part of the problem here is that DeSantis has personally designated some vaccine sites, insisting on having a hand in the creation of what The Washington Post describes as "pop up" sites for vaccination. These sites have tended to be in wealthier, whiter areas of Florida.
Possibly in response to the accusations, shortly after they were made public the office of Governor DeSantis decided to lower the age requirements for vaccines, which were being titrated down from the upper, older age brackets, slowly working their way to the younger crowd. On March 10th, they decided to announce that in a couple of weeks, we'll likely see the age requirements reduced from the 60-64 age bracket to those 55 and up.
The Associated Press reports on this development:
DeSantis has faced criticism because some vaccine sites have seen low demand that has prompted administrators to offer the shot to any takers, breaking at random times from the eligibility requirements and then going back to tighter restrictions when demand surges. Hundreds of cars streamed bumper-to-bumper into a Miami vaccination site that appeared to be offering shots to anyone who showed up on Tuesday.The federally supported vaccination site went back to meeting federal and state guidelines on Wednesday, limiting access to people 65 and older, health care workers, teachers, officers and fighters who are 50 or older, and people 16 and older who are extremely vulnerable to the virus and provide a form.
This means, as you might expect, that Florida's vaccine distribution is partially in disarray. There are sites with vaccines and not enough eligible recipients to get them on the one hand, and then there are sites with too many people and nowhere near enough vaccines on the other hand. There's just no denying that the administration of the vaccine has been hurried and isn't adequately meeting the needs of Floridians.
And just now, Ron DeSantis is responding to the accusations of favoritism in his distribution to the residents of the Ocean Reef Club and other wealthier areas:
"Leadership matters and because of Governor Ron DeSantis' commitment to ensuring vaccine access to all seniors – regardless of background, income or zip code – millions of seniors in Florida have received the vaccine, and over 61 percent of our state's senior population have been vaccinated, the highest in the nation,"
DeSantis himself responded last month by saying that it had nothing to do with targeting specific zip codes blindly, or in such a manner that would favor wealthy donors, but the zip codes which were likely to have the most seniors in need of a vaccine:
"It wasn't a choice about zip codes. It was a choice about where is a high concentration of seniors where you can have communities provide the ability for them to go on."
Former Governor and US House Representative for Florida Charlie Christ asked the Department of Justice for an investigation into the accusations of favoritism and what some believe amounts to a bribery-for-vaccine scheme.
Charlie Christ specifically requestioned that the DOJ look into the case and determine if there's been any criminal activity. His letter states:
"I write with concern about reports that Florida Governor Ron DeSantis is establishing coronavirus vaccine distrbibutions and administration sites in select locations to benefit political allies and donors, over the needs of higher risk communities and existing county waitlists. As reported by multiple news outlets, the Governor is setting up "pop-up" vaccination sites to deliver doses to select communities. In several cases, these sites seem to be targeted to wealthy communities with whom Governor DeSantis has clear political connections, allowing some to skip to the front of the line in counties with existing waitlists. For example, on February 17th, Governor DeSantis made a surprise announcement that 3,000 new vaccine doses would be made available to the wealthy enclave of Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County. Lakewood Ranch's parent company is owned by one of the largest Republican donors in the country, including contributing over $900,000 to the Governor. The ZIP codes in question have the highest income levels and hte lowest COVID infection rates in the county."
At this point, it's unclear if there was any wrongdoing or criminal behavior and the accusations remain just that, accusations. But could they blossom into something more? Time will tell.