With vaccine shipment boost, DeSantis begins opening mass inoculation sites

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Florida will receive a 40,000-dose boost in its weekly allocation of COVID-19 vaccines, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Monday while announcing plans to reopen testing sites as drive-thru inoculation centers and expand other distribution programs statewide.

During a news conference at a closed mass testing site in The Villages to be reopened Thursday as a drive-thru vaccination clinic that will inoculate up to 4,000 weekly, DeSantis said Florida will receive 307,000 shots weekly beginning this week, up from 266,000.

“Because of that increase, we are able to announce that beginning this Thursday, that drive-thru site (in The Villages) will be able to be open again. But this time it’s going to be a permanent vaccination site,” DeSantis said.

Among other mass vaccination sites opening this week, the governor said a “pod” in Sun City Center will begin administering 5,000 doses weekly and a Broward County site will offer 3,500 shots weekly.

According to the state’s Department of Health (DOH), nearly 1.7 million Floridians had received inoculations through Sunday with 1.364 million receiving first shots and awaiting the second of the two-shot regimen.

Of the nearly 1.7 million who have received at least one shot, 1.2 million are 65-and-older, reflecting DeSantis’ “Seniors First” policy that places members of the public 65-and-over as a higher priority than “essential workers.”

“So far, Florida has done a higher percentage of its vaccinations to senior citizens than any other state,” DeSantis said. “We decided, as the first state in the country, to put seniors first, that has been our goal, that has been our policy, we haven’t wavered from that, and of course, many states are now following Florida to put seniors first.”

DeSantis said he is setting aside 1,500 doses for “homebound seniors” and has secured agreements with 23 houses of worship to host vaccination sites.

“I think you’ve gotten a lot of buy-in from the parishioners partially because it’s not some wild-eyed public health bureaucrat shaking their finger at them telling them to get it,” DeSantis said. “It’s someone that they trust, having a pastor, having these people that they know.”

By week’s end, there will be more than 300 places where people can get COVID-19 vaccines in Florida, including at more than 250 Publix pharmacies in 20 counties.

Critics of the state’s agreement with Publix to be the exclusive provider for vaccines for the general public over 65 say the chain isn’t largest enough — in less than 150 minutes Friday, all 48,900 vaccines it had were reserved — nor widespread enough.

According to South Florida Sun Sentinel analysis, the grocery chain has few stores in low-income and Black neighborhoods, making access difficult for seniors in “vaccine deserts.”

“There’s not any type of racial discrimination” in his rollout plan, DeSantis said. Eligibility is “not accounting for race. It’s all based on age, regardless of any of that. That’s obviously the way it needs to be.”

Last week, the Palm Beach County Commission issued a blistering criticism of DeSantis’ “pilot program” to allow Publix exclusively manage inoculations for 400,000 county 65-and-older residents.

On Friday, the state’s Emergency Management Department announced 5,000 vaccines would be diverted from Publix to county health official to clinics in Belle Glade and Lake Worth Beach.

DeSantis also faces an optics issue. According to the Florida Division of Elections, Publix donated $100,000 to ‘Friends of Ron DeSantis’ on Dec. 31, five days before he announced the state’s exclusive partnership with Publix.

DeSantis’ office has denied the donation played any role in Publix securing the agreement, dismissing claims as “baseless and ridiculous.”

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