DeSantis on COVID-19 vaccine site controversy: ‘I wouldn’t be complaining’

After some Manatee County commissioners criticized the decision-making behind the state’s vaccine pop-up site in "whitest and richest" Lakewood Ranch, Gov. Ron DeSantis had one simple message: If you don’t want it, it will be given to another county.

"Would they rather us send it to other counties? It wasn’t a choice about ZIP codes, it was a choice of where is a high concentration of seniors where communities can provide," he insisted Wednesday morning.

The controversy started when Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jenson received a call last week from the governor asking to identify two communities to get 3,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine for a state clinic.

In turn, Jenson contacted county commission chair Vanessa Baugh, who helped choose ZIP codes 34211 and 34202, which are just east of I-75 and straddle Myakka City Road. It's also where her district is.

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The first sets of ZIP codes are both over 90% white, with median incomes of over $100,000 a year.

The second set of ZIP codes are at least 15% Black with median incomes of under $60,000.

"We ask why we think there is a racism problem perceived in Manatee County? This adds to that argument," said Commissioner Misty Servia. "You’re taking the whitest and richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them ahead of everyone else."

On Wednesday, from the Lakewood Ranch site, DeSantis reiterated that the vaccine supply is from the state stash, not from the county’s. 

"There was no choice to pick certain ZIP codes," the Florida governor explained. "We wanted to find communities that have high levels of seniors and this obviously has a high concentration. This is in addition to everything that’s provided to Manatee County. This is totally supplementary to that." 

"If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing that," he added, "we are totally fine with putting this in other counties."

Prior to Wednesday, several county commissioners pointed out that the number of COVID-19 cases in those areas was a total of about 2,548.

Meanwhile, in ZIP codes covering Palmetto and Samoset, for instance, like 34221 and 34208, cases total 8,250.

"I realize ya'll don't like the way it happened. I am sorry," Baugh said during a recent meeting. "But it is 3,000 people who will be taken off the list in Manatee County that get the vaccine. If there is a problem with that, I am sorry. But I jumped on it and I'd do it again." 

Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, who has been critical of DeSantis' response to the coronavirus pandemic, said the governor is "rationing vaccines based on political influence."

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

DeSantis said the state wanted to target areas where the vaccine count among seniors was lower than the state average. He said officials saw Manatee, Sarasota and Charlotte counties had 20% of its senior residents vaccinated.

During his press conference, the governor pointed out that the state targeted seniors in Venice and the Kings Gate community last week, but both were for homebound seniors, including war veterans.

"I wouldn’t be complaining," DeSantis said. "I would be thankful. We didn’t need to do this at all. I do think this is something that is going to be successful."