ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. – Florida began converting one of its major testing locations into a vaccination site and Gov. Ron DeSantis said Wednesday that residents over 65 should be soon able to receive a shot at other large-scale venues, churches, and even some grocery stores around the state.
DeSantis spoke at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, and some first responders were vaccinated. He called Wednesday a "soft opening” that will last a few days until the site opens to the regular public.
More than 329,000 people have been vaccinated in Florida — or about 1.5% of the population — almost all of them either health care workers, residents in care homes, or people over the age of 65.
“We believe putting seniors first is the right policy as a matter of public health,” DeSantis said.
Florida followed federal recommendations in starting vaccinations first for front-line medical workers plus residents and staff of nursing homes in mid-December. However, instead of putting essential workers and people over 75 next in line, as those recommendations suggested, or fully completing the first group of recipients, DeSantis moved in late December to open up vaccinations more broadly for people 65 and over.
The rollouts have been very uneven across the state's counties, but have been met with huge demand, with some people camping out in cars overnight to be in line for the limited supply. DeSantis said public drive-through sites like the one opening in Miami would be ramped up in coming days.
The state's Department of Health on Wednesday said there were 17,783 new cases of COVID-19, bringing the state’s total to just over 1.4 million people. It's the highest single-day total released since the pandemic began. Also, 129 new deaths were announced, bringing the resident death toll to more than 22,000.
Meanwhile, questions were being raised about whether rich or well-connected people were unfairly getting access to the vaccine earlier than others. Florida has launched an investigation into an upscale nursing home amid reports that it administered coronavirus vaccines to wealthy donors and members of a country club along with its residents and employees.
The Washington Post and New York Post both reported that MorseLife Health System, a nonprofit that operates a nursing home and assisted living facility in West Palm Beach, has given vaccinations to donors and members of the Palm Beach Country Club, whose foundation has donated at least $75,000 to MorseLife since 2015, tax records show.
The newspapers reported that the vaccinations were organized by MorseLife CEO Keith Myers and New Jersey-based developer David Mack, who is a member of various MorseLife boards and chairman of the country club foundation’s board. The vaccines were distributed at the Joseph L. Morse Health Center, which is on David S. Mack Drive.
Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for DeSantis, said in an email to The Associated Press that the governor “has been extremely clear that vaccine should only be administered to Florida’s seniors 65 and older, frontline health care workers, and long-term care facility residents and staff.”
“We are investigating this situation and will hold any bad actors accountable,” she wrote.
Florida started vaccinations of members of the general public over 65 on Dec. 28. At the time, DeSantis argued enough vaccine was coming into the state weekly to open up the additional vaccinations in parallel with continuing jabs for front-line medical workers and nursing home residents.
DeSantis said people 65 and older should be put ahead of essential workers because the elderly represented an overwhelmingly disproportionate number of those dying from the disease. About 83% of the coronavirus deaths in Florida have been of patients older than 65.
Spencer reported from Fort Lauderdale, Florida.