President Joe Biden announced that 90 percent of Americans will have access to COVID-19 vaccines by April and folks can get their shots within a five-mile radius. Issues of access have been a long-standing problem since the vaccine rollout began, but 60 Minutes reports that the vaccine rollout in Palm Beach County is drawing suspicions that the wealthy are being favored over poor residents.
At first, Florida’s rollout prioritized healthcare workers and nursing home residents. Then Gov. Ron DeSantis broke CDC guidelines by announcing he would skip vaccinating teachers and essential workers next for “seniors first,” making anyone 65 or over eligible for a shot. It made Florida the first in the U.S. to make that move.
It didn’t go so well. Seniors competed with themselves to get poked and wait times lasted as long as 17 hours. Then the line jumping began and allegations of rich people being prioritized kicked in.
A thousand doses were given to the well-to-do city of Palm Beach, but the neighboring towns with fewer resources were left without any viles.
Keith James, mayor of West Palm Beach, complained about Palm Beach getting the 1,000 doses. While the county’s health director took the blame for James’ town getting shorted on vaccines, James said “But isn’t it funny that these mistakes only happen in communities that have that kind of wealth? They didn’t make a mistake and send a thousand doses to the poorest communities in our county?”
Keep in mind that the median income in West Palm Beach is about $28,000 a year, compared to $70,000 over in Palm Beach.
But here is the nugget that brings DeSantis on it all: He may have been given access to the vaccine on a pay-to-play basis. People were already having a hard time making appointments and getting to vaccine locations because they were so far away, but in January, the governor made matters worse. He announced in January that the state was partnering with Publix grocery stores to distribute the vaccine. Thing is, most seniors in Palm Beach County could no longer get vaccine appointments through their public health departments. They had to go to Publix. Many communities do not have such stores.
60 Minutes reports that Publix donated $100,000 to his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis. Julie Jenkins Fancelli, heiress to the Publix fortune, gave $55,000 to the governor’s PAC in the past. Her brother-in-law, Hoyt R. Barnett, a retired Publix executive, donated $25,000 back in November.
Here is a transcript of the back-and-forth between the 60 Minutes reporter and DeSantis when he was confronted about the inequity in vaccine rollout:
Sharyn Alfonsi: Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign. And then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach County.
Ron DeSantis: So, first of all, that— what you’re saying is wrong. That’s—
Sharyn Alfonsi: How is that not pay to play?
Ron DeSantis: —that— that’s a fake narrative. I met with the county mayor. I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said, “here’s some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix.” And they said, “We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.”
A county commissioner in one of the poorer communities in Palm Beach County said DeSantis never told her about the deal, according to 60 Minutes. A similar situation happened in Manatee County.
This is an issue that should have DeSantis in deep trouble as he heads into 2022 for his reelection bid. But, it’s Florida and the GOP is working diligently to ensure access and inequality aren’t at the top of legislative priorities.