COVID-19 vaccinations and Florida politics

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Clinic organizers discussed how upscale location would benefit DeSantis

Gov. Ron DeSantis waves at lawmakers and guests in the House chamber at the Capitol in Tallahassee following his State of the State address during opening day of the Florida Legislature on March 2.

IVY CEBALLO/TAMPA BAY TIMES/TNS

BY ZAC ANDERSON
SARASOTA HERALD-TRIBUNE/TNS

Text messages between Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh and Lakewood Ranch developer Rex Jensen show them discussing the political benefits for Gov. Ron DeSantis of holding a COVID-19 vaccine clinic that the pair organized in the upscale community.

In the text exchange, Jensen appears to be recounting a call with DeSantis. He mentions that “chief of staff Adrian was also involved.” The governor’s deputy chief of staff at the time was Adrian Lukis, who was announced on March 8 as his new chief of staff.

Jensen goes on to say that DeSantis “said he might show up” at the vaccine clinic, which Jensen says would the governor “get exposure here.”

“Excellent point,” Baugh responds. “After all, 22 is right around the corner.” Baugh appears to be referring to the governor’s 2022 re-election campaign.

“Yup,” Jensen responds, before noting that the Lakewood Ranch venue where the clinic was held, the Premiere Sports Campus, “could have a nice setup for him.”

“Absolutely,” Baugh responds, adding: “This can be huge for him.”

Political considerations

Baugh has said that Jensen was contacted by DeSantis and asked to do a vaccination clinic in Lakewood Ranch, and Jensen contacted Baugh to help organize the effort.

The texts indicate that political considerations were on the minds of those planning a vaccination event that has since become highly controversial, with critics complaining that the clinic held Feb. 17 to 19 limited vaccines to individuals in two wealthy, heavily White and Republican ZIP codes. It’s not clear from the text exchange documents what the date is, but other documents indicate it was on Feb. 9.

Baugh also has been sharply criticized and is under investigation by the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office for creating a vaccine VIP list that included five names of people to get the shot, including herself and Jensen.

Vaccine favoritism

The Lakewood Ranch clinic sparked concerns of vaccine favoritism and political motivations influencing decisions on who got access to the life-saving shots.

Jensen serves as president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, which has donated to DeSantis, adding to questions about whether DeSantis is giving communities tied to his donors special access to the vaccine.

DeSantis donor Pat Neal also was tapped to host a vaccine clinic, which ended up offering special vaccine access to three communities where Neal is building homes, including one Sarasota County development with homes valued at more than $1 million.

The texts between Baugh and Jensen touch on the political payback for DeSantis when communities agree to host these vaccine events and offer some of the strongest evidence that politics may have factored into the discussions around these vaccine pop-up clinics.

DeSantis has said that clinics such as the one in Lakewood Ranch are an attempt to reach more senior citizens by going to communities with high concentrations of older residents. But they also offer him the opportunity to hold a news conference, garner media attention and get credit for personally bringing the vaccine to influential groups of voters.

Clear evidence

The text messages between Baugh and Jensen were obtained by Sarasota paralegal Michael Barfield through a public records request.

“Every time I hear a politician talk about distribution of COVID vaccine it’s all cast in terms of how it’s not political, that politics plays no role in the distribution,” Barfield said.

“But here we had proof that they were talking about how it’s going to look good and benefit the governor. So, what we’ve suspected is actually in black and white and they can no longer say that politics are not involved in the distribution of the vaccine, and that’s really disappointing. I know we’re in this hyper-partisan era, but it’s really disappointing.”

Barfield filed a complaint with the Manatee Sheriff’s Office recently alleging Baugh may have violated Florida laws prohibiting the “misuse of public position.” Her behavior also may constitute “official misconduct” and “misuse of confidential information” under Florida law, Barfield wrote in the complaint.

Baugh said it was her decision to limit the vaccine to two ZIP codes. She later apologized for making the vaccine priority list. She narrowly survived an effort to remove her as commission chair as punishment.

Delays for some

DeSantis has traveled the state holding news conferences at many vaccine clinics, some of which have opened near existing vaccination sites. Manatee County has a vaccination site at Tom Bennett Park, about 10 miles from Premiere. The doses at Tom Bennett Park are distributed based on the county’s vaccine lottery system, which was created to ensure fair access.

On Feb. 17, the same day that DeSantis held a news conference at the Lakewood Ranch vaccination site, Manatee County announced that it was canceling vaccine appointments for 5,100 seniors scheduled to get inoculated at Tom Bennett Park on Feb. 18 and 19 because a storm had delayed vaccine delivery.

That meant that Tom Bennett Park had plenty of capacity to distribute the vaccine during the time that the 3,000-dose Lakewood Ranch clinic was held.

“If it truly were not political in my view the governor would have said let’s take these 3,000 doses over to Bennett Park and don’t cancel for those people,” Barfield said. 

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