Ron DeSantis threatens to pull vaccine from Fla. county that accused him of favoring wealthy whites

State official says DeSantis is "rationing vaccines based on political influence," which is "potentially illegal"

By Igor Derysh

Senior News Editor

Published February 18, 2021 12:50PM (EST)

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis threatened to divert coronavirus vaccine doses from a county whose officials criticized him for opening a pop-up vaccination site limited to residents of an affluent, mostly white community.

Manatee County officials from both parties criticized the Republican governor after the state's pop-up clinics in the area were limited to two zip codes that are two of the richest and least-impacted in the county, according to the Bradenton Herald. Both zip codes are more than 90% white with median incomes over $100,000, according to WTVT. Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh told the Herald that the clinics were set up in Lakewood Ranch and other wealthy areas after DeSantis spoke with Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen, a campaign donor.

"You're taking the whitest demographic and richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else," County Commissioner Misty Servia, a Republican, said during a meeting this week.

Other commissioners complained that the move undercut messaging assuring that distribution of the vaccine would be fairly run through a random lottery process.

"This is bad for all of us, regardless of what district or population we represent because it makes our system look bad," said County Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, a Democrat.

DeSantis traveled to Lakewood Ranch on Wednesday, where he threatened to pull vaccines from the county entirely in response to the criticism.

"If Manatee County doesn't like us doing this, then we are totally fine putting this in counties that want it. We're totally happy to do that," he said at a news conference. "Anyone that's saying that, let us know if you want us to send it Sarasota or Charlotte or Pasco or wherever, let us know — we're happy to do it."

"I wouldn't be complaining," he later added. "I'd be thankful that we are able to do it."

Florida Democrats slammed DeSantis' threat and accused him of political favoritism.

"To threaten that he would pull vaccine if people don't like the way the distribution system is working is vile and shows the callous indifference he has had in how the vaccine has been handled," Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.

State Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, a fellow Democrat, said there was "no reason that Gov. DeSantis should be rationing vaccines based on political influence."

"This is troubling and potentially illegal," she said. "Vaccines should be distributed to counties based on need, capacity, and science."

The pop-up sites were announced after DeSantis quietly reached out to Jensen, the president and CEO of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which developed the Lakewood Ranch community. 

Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh told the Herald that she worked with Jensen to organize the pop-up sites in the zip codes, which largely fall into her district. Jensen told the outlet that DeSantis offered to send the National Guard and Department of Health workers to administer the shots if Jensen agreed to host the sites in his communities. Baugh's involvement in the planning came as a shock to her colleagues.

"I'm totally shocked that one district commissioner fought for more vaccines for only their district. What about the rest of the county? I'm shocked that we would do this without even the board knowing about it," Commissioner Carol Whitmore, a Republican, told the Herald. "It doesn't look good at all that one commissioner did that."

Baugh did not say why DeSantis chose the Lakewood Ranch area but told the outlet that she doesn't see anything wrong with targeting zip codes with high numbers of seniors.

"People need to look at the statistics. There have been other clinics and many people out east haven't received the vaccines and are underserved. I see it as a win-win," she said. "This is not a negative situation."

DeSantis also said on Wednesday that the state "wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living in there, and this obviously has a high concentration."

But the state has also been criticized for failing to reach underserved communities in Manatee County and elsewhere. Just over 5% of vaccines in the state have been administered to Black residents even though they make up nearly 17% of the population, according to Politico. Faith leaders have criticized DeSantis' office for ignoring their request to use churches and community centers in predominantly Black areas to expand access.

Fried, despite criticizing DeSantis' scheme as potentially illegal, said she would urge the Biden administration not to penalize the state.

"While I am disappointed in the governor using vaccines as a political tool, I plan on working with the Biden administration to ensure they do not penalize Floridians for his actions and continue to ramp up vaccine distribution to all communities so that we can get our economy and state going again," she said in a statement.

State Rep. Michele Rayner, a Democrat, told the Herald that DeSantis should give as much priority to people of color in her district as he gave to seniors in more affluent parts of the state.

"I think that with the same priority you have with these wealthy communities, we need to prioritize frontline and essential workers," she said. "Those same people, frontline and essential workers, are disproportionately Black and brown, and those folks should be prioritized as well to minimize the effects in the community."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's senior news editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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