Seniors living in Citrus, Hernando and Marion counties will be able to get vaccinated for COVID-19 while shopping at Publix, under an agreement Gov. Ron DeSantis’ administration reached with the Florida-based supermarket chain.
The state is directing 15,000 vaccine doses to 22 Publix stores across the three Central Florida counties as the administration works to increase the number of locations where people age 65 and older can go to receive inoculations.
DeSantis’ announcement Tuesday about the Publix agreement comes amid a wave of criticism about the governor’s handling of the vaccine rollout.
The supermarket chain will begin taking online appointments for the vaccinations on Thursday, according to a press release issued by DeSantis’ office. The first vaccinations will be administered on Friday.
“As you’re shopping for groceries, knock out your vaccine,” DeSantis said Tuesday at a Publix in Marion County, where the governor announced the agreement.
Three Publix locations in Citrus County will offer the vaccinations, as will 11 stores in Hernando County and eight stores in Marion County.
Nationwide, 4,836,469 people had received the first dose of the Pfizer Inc. or the Moderna vaccine as of Tuesday morning, according to a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tracking system.
A Florida Department of Health report shows that 289,773 people in Florida had been vaccinated with either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as of Tuesday. The number includes 1,997 people who have received two doses of the vaccine, as recommended by the federal government.
The governor has attributed the slow start of vaccinations to the winter holidays but predicted that there will be an uptick in activity in January.
Holidays aside, the vaccination rollout has been hampered by days of long lines, jammed phone systems and overwhelmed websites as Florida seniors who, along with health care workers, were designated as eligible for vaccinations scrambled to get doses from county health departments and hospitals.
The problems have drawn unflattering national media attention and DeSantis sparred on Monday with a CNN reporter who asked questions about the issue.
DeSantis made the Publix announcement as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state continues to mount. Florida health officials have recorded 1,392,123 infections in the state since the coronavirus first arrived in the state last year. More than 22,000 Florida residents have died of COVID-19, according to the Florida Department of Health.
The agreement with the Publix supermarket chain, which operates pharmacies, underscores the DeSantis administration’s continued reliance on the private sector to help get shots into the arms of individuals who qualify for the vaccinations.
Initially, hospitals were told to inoculate their frontline health care workers, as well as frontline workers at nearby facilities.
On Dec. 23, DeSantis issued an executive order making the vaccine available to all health care workers as well as to people over the age of 65, which DeSantis on Tuesday acknowledged led to long lines as demand for vaccinations outpaced supply. Florida is home to roughly 4.4 million people age 65 and older.
“There was a natural crush that happened,” DeSantis said. “And I think as we continue, as more people get booked for appointments, there’s still going to be high demand, but I think it’ll get a little easier to navigate. The bottom line is being able to bring these vaccines to people, getting it so they have the ability to sign up (for a COVID-19 vaccination appointment) is very, very important. So we are just going to keep doing it. We’re going to keep expanding the opportunities for this.”
Publix is the first pharmacy the state has brought into its vaccination distribution efforts, though the federal government has inked agreements with CVS and Walgreens to provide vaccinations for residents and staff at long-term care facilities.
Cocoa pharmacist Dawn Butterfield, who is the owner of West Cocoa Pharmacy & Compounding, is disappointed that the governor didn’t look to independent pharmacies to help provide vaccinations.
Butterfield said that she has received a stream of phone calls from customers who don’t want to go to the hospital to get a COVID-19 vaccination. The alternative --- the Brevard County Health Department --- has run out of supply and is not taking any additional appointments or maintaining a waiting list for those who want the vaccine.
“Left out again,” Butterfield said in an email to The News Service of Florida, adding that it’s “ALWAYS the big corporations” that are chosen to work with the state.