Orange County filled 7,000 COVID-19 appointments in 13 minutes Monday after lowering the minimum age to 40, leading Mayor Jerry Demings to insist local decisions can make the difference in driving up vaccination numbers.
Demings broke with state policy last Thursday when he announced Orange County would go to 40 as a minimum age, compared with 50 for the state, a reduced age that Gov. Ron DeSantis did not announce until the next day. That disagreement on minimum age requirements led to a back-and-forth through media comments. DeSantis grumbled that it wasn’t Demings’ decision to make. Demings responded that he’s not sorry.
Monday, Demings initially resisted pushing the argument further, but he gave in during his question-and-answer period with journalists. Let local leaders make decisions about vaccination strategies in their communities, Demings argued.
Though Demings has made no overtures in that direction, his name increasingly comes up in Democratic circles as a potential opponent for DeSantis’s reelection bid next year.
“My passion here is not to be at odds with the Governor. It is to move the Governor in another direction to do what I believe is the right thing for our community,” Deming said. “I’m going to continue to do that. I will not be apologetic about that. I’m going to continue to use experience that I have now for having been a public servant for 40 years in various capacities in this community.”
In particular, Demings took issue with DeSantis’ assertion that Orange County’s vaccination rate among seniors wasn’t high enough yet to justify expanding the age pool all the way to 40-year-olds.
Who’s fault is that? Demings essentially challenged.
“I want you to think about: Up until recently, it was the state of Florida, it was the Governor, that controlled which sites were selected for distribution of the vaccination within our state, with very little input from local governments,” Demings said. “He certainly had very little input from here. So when we see the numbers not being what we desired them to be, who’s responsible for that? Am I responsible, when I didn’t chose the sites, or the location?
“At the end of the day, if our numbers are below other counties, it is the result of decisions made somewhere else other than here,” he said.
The 7,000 appointments taken Monday filled all available vaccinations slots for the week at the Orange County Convention Center, which is controlled by the county. The doses are supplied by the federal government through allotments that pass through state hands to counties.
Orange County currently gets about 18,000 doses a week and is administering about 3,000 a day at the convention center. Demings said he expects the allotment to grow considerably and quickly, and he said they could do 5,000 shots a day at the convention center.
“You heard some 7,000 appointments made in 13 minutes. So that speaks to the demand. For the last several weeks we had not reached our maximum capacity at Orange County Convention Center,” Demings said. “So the fact that when we opened today, we reached that capacity, that’s good news.”
He said he has not heard anything directly from DeSantis or Governor’s Office.
“I’m not sure how you define backlash, but I’m going to say no,” he said.
“It’s a measured approach that we have used. I would not expect that there would not be any type of retribution, backlash as you put it, because we are making decisions to protect the people of our county. I don’t know how you argue with that,” Demings said. “That’s my goal. It’s not a political goal. It’s not a partisan goal. It’s about getting our county vaccinated as quickly as we can.”
On Friday, DeSantis told journalists, “It’s not his decision to make,” of Demings’ decision to broaden the pool of eligible residents.
“There’s a structure in the state of Florida in terms of how these decisions are made,” he added. “Trying to do healthy 40-year-olds over finding maybe some more seniors to me would not be the direction that I would go.”
Demings dismissed the Governor’s comments.
“Those are just words he is using. We’ll move beyond that. My goal is to not make this a personal issue. This is about the life, health, and safety of individuals in our community,” he said.