In January 2021, elderly residents across Florida spent hours in line waiting to receive a coronavirus vaccine. But wealthy donors of assisted living facility MorseLife Health System didn’t have to wait: They received phone calls inviting them to get the jab at their leisure. The story was met with uproar and became one of many instances in which wealthy Florida residents got special access to a vaccine that was heavily in demand, but limited in supply.
Private companies and state-endorsed channels of distribution alike prioritized the wealthy. Politico reported that in January, the Baptist Health of South Florida hospital system sent an email exclusively to wealthy donors, telling them they were eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine. Also in January, residents of the wealthy, gated Ocean Reef Club received priority access to vaccines as well. Ocean Reef is home to many Republican donors, including the only residents of Key Largo who gave to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ political committee.
In February, DeSantis initiated a pop-up vaccine drive for residents of Manatee County’s two richest ZIP codes, including those in a planned community with ties to a family of wealthy Republican donors. Emails reported on by the Bradenton Herald showed that Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh created a “VIP list” to allow her and others to cut the line. In text messages later obtained by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, property developer Rex Jensen suggested that DeSantis might make an appearance at the Manatee County clinic, which could “help him get exposure here.” Baugh replied, “Excellent point …  is right around the corner.”
One of the selected Manatee County properties, Lakewood Ranch, was built by Pat Neal, a former state senator who donated $125,000 to DeSantis’ political committee in 2018 and 2019. In late February, DeSantis chose two other Neal developments for pop-up sites in Charlotte and Sarasota counties.
Opaque methods of vaccine distribution also allowed inequities to arise. Every week, Florida ships out nearly a quarter of its vaccine doses to the grocery chain Publix, the state’s largest vaccine distributor. But Publix doesn’t provide state officials with a distribution plan ahead of time, making unilateral decisions about where vaccines will go and leaving state officials to adjust plans for equitable distribution well after shots have been administered. The arrangement also doesn’t reach all groups equally — in Palm Beach County, Black communities had difficulty accessing the vaccine because they lacked proximity to Publix stores, which had sole distribution rights in the county.
In other parts of the state, vaccine drives held in majority-Black communities were “first-come, first-serve,” which allowed wealthy white residents from other areas to try their luck there, further widening racial disparities. By March, only 6 percent of those vaccinated in the state were Black, although 17 percent of the state’s population is Black.
American Oversight is investigating the vaccine rollout in Florida. We’ve sent records requests to Florida’s Department of Health and Department of Emergency Management seeking communications with the communities that received early access to the vaccine. We’ve also requested communications between officials of these favored neighborhoods and officials in the Florida governor’s office.