Barring a series of increasingly tragic disasters, we’ll probably be hearing about pandemic-related political favors and mind-melting incompetence for years. Early signs also indicate that we’re in for an exhibition of bipartisan jockeying for the role of pandemic hero by the same agents of destruction. Thinking that’s a little cynical? Look at Florida Governor and Trump progeny Ron DeSantis, bewilderingly zooming to the top of the polls while batting off a potential vaccine bribery scandal.
DeSantis is currently denying allegations that he’s traded vaccines for campaign funds. Last week, the Miami Herald reported that a private, resort-like Key Largo haven called the Ocean Reef Club obtained vaccines for senior residents in January, long before most of the state. The club is home to a waterfront hamlet with luxury condos, 1,700 estates, and reportedly, an over-$200,000 initiation fee. “We are fortunate to have received enough vaccines to ensure both the first and second for those vaccinated,” club management told residents in a letter dated January 22nd, adding: “At this time, however, the majority of the State has not received an allocation of first doses of vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear.”
It’s unclear whether the over-65 residents of the Ocean Reef Club were fully vaccinated by the time the memo went out on the 22nd. The letter does suggest that Ocean Reef had received plenty of doses of the vaccine early and easily, while seniors beyond their sanctuary had to hustle to get to centers that quickly ran out. On January 10th—presumably the same week Ocean Reef began its rollout—the New York Times reported that only 402,000 doses had been administered, less than 10 percent of the overall population of Floridians 65 and older. One 76-year-old Florida resident compared the process to “Desert Storm.”
By January 26th, DeSantis was still vague about when most seniors could get their second doses and complained that the federal government was responsible for uncertain supply. White House press secretary Jen Psaki countered by saying Florida had only used half of what the federal government had provided. In other words, the rich get vaccines while the majority of the elderly jump through flaming hoops.
The Chicago Tribune later found, from DeSantis’s political committee disclosure, that Ocean Reef resident and former Republican Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner donated $250,000 to DeSantis on February 25th. The database shows 20 contributions from the Ocean Reef zip code since 2017.
DeSantis didn’t deny that the community obtained expedited vaccines, rather he alluded to a private vaccine market he wouldn’t know anything about, which he thinks is “great.” “That was not a site that we were involved in, in the Keys,” DeSantis said, in a quote published by the Orlando Sentinel. “That was one of the South Florida hospital systems [that] went to this community of seniors, I think that’s great. I want seniors to get shots, I think they did a good job of doing that. We just weren’t involved with it in any way, shape, or form.”
If by “we,” DeSantis is referring to the state, then this is a lie. According to Baptist Health South Florida—the healthcare organization that distributed the vaccines to Ocean Reef—the club not only asked the state for the vaccine, but the state approached Baptist Health for the delivery. A spokesperson told the Miami Herald: “the State of Florida asked Baptist Health to take delivery of the doses to our ultra-cold freezer storage for delivery to the Medical Center at Ocean Reef.”
If DeSantis were involved, it would be consistent with state vaccine rollout efforts that have clearly prioritized wealthy white zip codes. He openly placed a state vaccine clinic at a gated community developer by a donor and restricted access only to wealthy zip codes.
No matter how much DeSantis touts Florida as an “oasis of freedom” in the coming years—and he absolutely will, it’s a line that fired up the Hyatt at CPAC a few weeks ago—remember that he kept the state fully open during Florida’s second surge in January. By many accounts, he’s shown a disturbing disinterest in the wider distribution of life-saving vaccines. He told seniors to sign up on the wrong website. Mayors told the Miami Herald that he won’t take their calls. Health officials have said that vaccinations at hospitals caused pandemonium for seniors. Low-paid frontline workers like grocery store employees say they’ve been utterly left in the dark.
“We are stronger as a state and much happier as a people because of this leadership,” he said, at CPAC. Currently, NPR affiliate WBUR classifies Florida in the highest-risk bracket out of all states. The state has reported nearly 2 million cases and 31,764 deaths according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
The chaotic system has clearly benefited white people above all. According to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, vaccination rates for Black and Hispanic residents are far out of proportion with the overall population makeup. (Black people, who make up about 17 percent of Florida’s population according to 2019 census data, only represent 7 percent of the total vaccinated.) Leaders for communities of color have said that they have had to clamor for notice despite the fact that these communities need vaccines more than whites; the CDC has found that death rates are roughly twice as high for Black and Hispanic people than it is for whites. A New York Times census analysis found that essential workers are disproportionately non-white women.
Florida Democratic Commissioner of Agriculture Nikki Fried has called for an FBI investigation into priority vaccines for the rich; Florida Democratic Senator Gary Farmer asked the Department of Justice to look into “what appears to be a scheme to trade access to lifesaving vaccinations for hefty campaign contributions.”
But more or less telling constituents to do whatever they feel like has gotten him this far. So has his efforts to limit the role of local governments, forcing them to allow at least 50 percent dining capacity and prohibiting enforcement of mask mandates, which he extended even at the onset of the recent surge. “God help us all,” an epidemiologist tweeted in November.
Ron DeSantis is currently tied with Mike Pence as a frontrunner in a Republican poll that excludes Trump. Just when you thought none could compete with the flavorful buffet of diseased cheeseburgers and mayo smoothies and booger jam...