Florida governor faces growing claims of vaccine favouritism

MIAMI (AP) — Florida Governor Florida governor faces growing claims of vaccine favouritism Ron DeSantis and state health officials came under deeper scrutiny amid revelations that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid-January, giving ammunition to critics who said the Republican governor is favouring wealthy constituents over ordinary Floridians.

The revelations were the latest example of wealthy Floridians getting earlier access to coronavirus vaccines, even as the state has lagged in efforts to get poorer residents vaccinated.

DeSantis pushed back on Thursday, saying a local hospital — not the state — was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo, Florida, and that the state “wasn’t involved in it in any shape or form”.

Despite the governor’s denials of quid pro quos, the charges of favouritism were amplified by money pouring into the governor’s campaign coffers from wealthy benefactors with ties to communities awarded vaccination sites — like the one in Key Largo. One resident of Ocean Reef, Republican former Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner, last week gave the Florida governor’s campaign committee USD250,000. Revelations about Ocean Reef residents getting vaccinated were first reported by the Miami Herald.

The inequitable distribution of the COVID-19 vaccines is becoming a public relations challenge for the governor. As of Wednesday, nearly 3.3 million Floridians had received at least one shot of the two-step vaccination process. But less than six per cent have been Black — about a third of their share of the state’s population.

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried joined Democratic United States (US) Representative Charlie Crist in calling for federal officials to probe the DeSantis administration’s vaccine distribution programmes.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said on Thursday at a press conference in the Florida Capitol.

“Give campaign contributions big dollars, get special access to vaccines – ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farmworkers and so many of our residents here in our state of Florida who are scared and who are wanting these vaccines.”

Citing reporting from the Miami Herald, Fried noted that DeSantis in February had his biggest fundraising haul since 2018, when he was running for governor.

In asking the US Department of Justice to look into matter, Crist, a former Florida governor, asserted last week that DeSantis were benefitting “political allies and donors, over the needs of higher-risk communities and existing county waitlists”. Both Crist and Fried are considering campaigns to oppose DeSantis in next year’s gubernatorial election.

During a news conference on Thursday, DeSantis expressed no misgivings about the early vaccinations at the exclusive Key Largo community.

“If you are 65 and up, I am not worried about your income bracket,” he said. “I am worried about your age bracket because it’s the age, not the income, that shows the risk.”

While critics point to disparities in vaccine distributions as a call for more outreach into underserved areas of the state, including in communities of colour and impoverished neighbourhoods, DeSantis noted that “demand was relatively tepid in sites in Miami, Tampa, Orlando and Jacksonville. The governor said the four sites had the capacity to administer 12,000 doses but only vaccinated 6,500 people.