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Crist Calls For DOJ Investigation Of DeSantis’ Choice For Vaccination Sites

urse gives vaccine shot to a woman. Both are wearing masks.
Mary Altaffer
Registered Nurse Shyun Lin, left, administers Alda Maxis, 70, the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at a pop-up vaccination site in the William Reid Apartments in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Jan. 23.

There are political and medical reactions coming in regarding pop-up COVID-19 vaccine distribution sites and how they were chosen.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing backlash after selecting an affluent area in Manatee County for a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination site that handed out 3,000 doses.

The number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continues rising, with many people on county waitlists to receive the vaccine. This has left some asking why one of the areas in Manatee County with the lowest number of infections received the vaccines first.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist is accusing DeSantis of using the vaccine sites to further his agenda, while not caring about others affected by the pandemic.

In a letter to Acting Attorney General Monty Wilkinson, the Pinellas County Democrat called out DeSantis for making Lakewood Ranch a vaccination site.

Crist pointed out -- without naming him -- that Lakewood Ranch’s parent company is owned by Dick Uihlein, who contributed $900,000 to DeSantis’ campaign in 2018 and 2019.

Crist, who is considering running for governor again, added that DeSantis had not made the right choices for Florida’s citizens.

“Time and time again, Governor DeSantis has proven he is not up to the task of leading our state out of this pandemic as he continues to play politics with the health and well-being of vulnerable Floridians,” he said.

“So far, over 30,000 Floridians have died, and at least 1.8 million more have gotten sick, with minority communities and seniors hit the hardest. Instead of prioritizing people most at risk, the Governor has chosen – during the worst pandemic in a century – to help out his friends and donors. That is why I’m calling on the Department of Justice to investigate.”

While being questioned by reporters last Wednesday, DeSantis threatened to distribute the vaccines elsewhere.

“Anyone in Manatee [County], if they don’t want us doing it, then just tell us, and we’ll make sure that we send those doses to folks who want it,” he said.

DeSantis also said the choice resulted from his plan to get doses out to Florida’s senior population first, adding that Manatee County was running behind other counties in terms of the percentage of vaccinated seniors.

“There was no choice to pick certain ZIP codes,” DeSantis said. “We wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living there. And this (Lakewood Ranch) obviously has a high concentration. You look at all these different communities, and there’s a lot of senior citizens.”

However, the choice for a site started when DeSantis reached out to Rex Jensen, the CEO of Lakewood Ranch’s development company and a contributor to the governor’s campaign.

Jensen got in touch with Manatee County Commission chairwoman Vanessa Baugh, who chose to give the doses to members of only two ZIP codes — 34202 and 34211. The areas, which are in Baugh’s district, are among the richest and whitest communities in the county.

The set-up also skipped the county’s existing random lottery system.

Dr. Marissa Levine, with the University of South Florida College of Public Health, told The Daily Beast that “there weren’t any ethics here, and it was much more a matter of who you know.”

“It would have been better for DeSantis to take those doses and put them back in the existing [lottery system]. That is the more equitable way.”

Baugh also asked organizers to put herself, Jensen, his father, and two of her former neighbors on the list to receive vaccinations.

Baugh apologized at a public meeting last week, saying she wasn’t trying to move them to the front of the line, only making sure they were on the county’s list.

However, everyone on Baugh's list -- except her -- was offered a vaccination appointment.

Additional reporting courtesy Josuan Rodriguez and John Davis with WGCU in Fort Myers.

Devonta Davis is the WUSF Noble Radio News Intern for the spring 2021 semester.