Senate Democratic Leader Gary Farmer is joining Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried’s call for a federal review of Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
The push stems in part from a new Miami Herald report showing elderly residents in Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy Key Largo community, had almost been fully vaccinated by mid-January as many other elderly Floridians struggled to get their hands on the shots.
The Herald did not allege the Ocean Reef Club was a state-sanctioned effort, nor that it happened at a state site. Nevertheless, Farmer wants the U.S. Justice Department to look into how those vaccines reached that community in the first place, and he accused Gov. Ron DeSantis of operating a “pay to play” scheme with those shots.
“In the months preceding Ocean Reef’s vaccine distribution, numerous residents all provided Ron DeSantis’ political committee with donations of $5,000 or more. Furthermore, late last month another Ocean Reef resident furnished DeSantis’ political committee with a $250,000 donation,” Farmer wrote in a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson.
“This is only the most recent report of Gov. DeSantis’ top donors being given priority vaccine access, and is reflected by a record month of $2.7 million in contributions to his political committee in February of this year.”
As the Herald laid out, Ocean Reef Club is home to several big Republican donors. But Meredith Beatrice, a DeSantis spokesperson, denied any involvement by the Governor’s office in providing those vaccines.
“This was not a state supported senior community POD [point of distribution], nor was it requested by the Governor,’’ Beatrice told the Herald.
Farmer alludes to other actions by the Governor that raised questions about how the vaccine was being distributed. Once such instance in mid-February saw the state ship 3,000 vaccines to a Pinellas Park senior community with haphazard guidelines as to who could sign up.
Democrats argue DeSantis is shuffling the vaccines into wealthier, Whiter, Republican-leaning counties. The Governor’s office disputes that characterization, arguing that seniors — a block that does tend to vote more Republican than the population at large — are being selected because of their vulnerability to the virus, not due to political considerations.
In that respect, DeSantis is correct. Those 65 and older are incredibly susceptible to COVID-19. And while other states have prioritized younger frontline workers differently, all health experts agree that elderly residents should be at or near the front of the line.
While the Governor’s office is denying wrongdoing in the Ocean Reef Club vaccine effort, Farmer is rejecting that explanation and is placing blame squarely on the Governor for allowing those shots to reach the area in the first place.
“The prioritization of the wealthy and affluent for vaccinations is morally reprehensible in its own right, but the exchange of hard-to-get vaccines for political contributions is nothing short of criminal,” Farmer’s letter to the Acting AG continues.
“If this scheme is what it appears to be, the Governor of Florida has used medical resources provided to the state by the federal government for his own personal and political gain. With this in mind, I would urge you to launch a full investigation into the actions of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pay-to-play vaccine arrangements, and any potential criminality that may arise.”