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County officials blasted DeSantis over vaccine site in an affluent White area. So he threatened to take away the doses.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) speaks Wednesday at a coronavirus vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch in Bradenton, Fla. (Chris O'meara/AP)
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When Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) unveiled a “pop-up” clinic offering coveted coronavirus vaccines in an affluent, mostly White part of Manatee County, Fla., lawmakers on both sides of the aisle slammed the plan for excluding residents in the rest of the county.

But on Wednesday, the governor offered no apologies, warning that he could instead take the doses elsewhere.

“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said at a news conference. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

As wealthy individuals in Florida and around the country snap up a disproportionate number of vaccination appointments, critics say DeSantis’s plan for the “pop-up” clinic near Tampa is only bound to widen disparities.

Some jurisdictions have targeted Zip codes that were hit especially hard by the virus, but many in Manatee County fear DeSantis’s plan will do the opposite, benefiting residents of an area who have fared relatively well — including some with ties to the governor.

“You’re taking the Whitest demographic and richest demographic in Manatee County and putting them before everyone else,” County Commissioner Misty Servia (R) said at a meeting this week.

Lack of health services and transportation impede access to vaccine in communities of color

Residents in Manatee County, which sits just south of Tampa, had grown increasingly frustrated by a randomized selection process used to distribute the vaccine. While about 180,000 people — half the population — had already signed up, Florida’s chaotic rollout and a limited supply have prevented many from getting their shots.

As the Bradenton Herald reported, DeSantis sought to address the problem by quietly contacting a campaign donor: Rex Jensen, a real estate developer whose company built Lakewood Ranch, a mostly Republican, mainly White master-planned community in Manatee County.

Working in private with the county commission chair, Vanessa Baugh (R), they struck a deal. If Jensen hosted an additional vaccination clinic on his development, the governor would offer state health workers to administer the vaccines and National Guard troops to control the flow of people. The supply of those doses would go beyond Manatee County’s weekly allotment of doses from the state government, the Herald reported.

There was just one catch: Rather than opening the pop-up vaccination site to everyone in the county, it would only offer doses to residents in two Zip codes — 34202 and 34211 — which cover much of Lakewood Ranch and other well-to-do residential areas nearby and fall largely in Baugh’s district.

“It wasn’t choosing one Zip code over another,” DeSantis said at the news conference on Wednesday. “We wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living in there, and this obviously has a high concentration.”

But once the plan was announced this week, many on the Republican-dominated body took DeSantis and Baugh to task. According to the Herald, at least three commissioners had not been aware of how the pop-up clinic was planned — or that it would not be open to all residents.

“What about the rest of the county? I’m shocked that we would do this without even the board knowing about it,” Commissioner Carol Whitmore (R) told the newspaper.

Commissioner Reggie Bellamy, the board’s sole Democrat, said at a public meeting that he had “been fighting like hell to show people that the lottery is equal and we cannot compromise the system. All of a sudden, someone is telling me we were able to pull a certain demographic out.”

Some, like Servia, also criticized the plan for vaccinating the most affluent neighborhoods ahead of underserved areas that had been pummeled by the pandemic.

About 8 percent of Manatee County’s coronavirus infections were reported in the two targeted Zip codes around Lakewood Ranch, the Herald noted. While both of these areas had recorded less than 1,600 cases, more than 4,300 people tested positive in one Zip code farther west.

But the architects of the pop-up clinic were unapologetic about the plan, saying that it ultimately served as a “good deal” that would benefit the county overall.

“I don’t really care, as long as we get needles in arms,” Jensen, the developer, told the Herald. “It’s not a discussion about groups. It’s about getting vaccines out into the public.”

At DeSantis’s news conference on Wednesday, the governor struck a similarly defiant tone, suggesting that he could simply send the vaccines to other counties in Florida.

“If there’s going to be folks that are going to complain about getting more vaccines … I mean, I wouldn’t be complaining,” he said. “I’d be thankful that we’re able to do it because, you know what, we didn’t need to do this at all.”

And Baugh, the board chair, told the Herald that the arrangement was “not a negative" one, because “many people out east haven’t received the vaccines and are underserved.”

It appears she may have been talking about herself, too.

On Wednesday evening, WTSP reported that she had asked the Lakewood Ranch clinic to prioritize herself and four others for vaccine shots — including Jensen and his father, both of whom do not live in the qualifying Zip codes.

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