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Democrats ask if DeSantis donations helped wealthy island enclave get early vaccine doses: ‘This is wrong on so many levels’

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gives his State of the State speech in the House of Representatives chamber on the first day of the 2021 Legislative Session in Tallahassee on March 2. (Tori Lynn Schneider/Tallahassee Democrat/AP)

Last week, former Illinois governor Bruce Rauner (R) was inspired to donate a quarter-million dollars to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s war chest.

The hefty donation came about a month after Rauner’s ultrawealthy and exclusive community on the northern tip of Key Largo received enough coronavirus vaccine doses for 1,200 residents over the age of 65, according to a Miami Herald report on Wednesday evening.

That vaccine access — at a time when many other elderly Floridians struggled to find doses — combined with donations to DeSantis by Rauner and more than a dozen other residents in the Ocean Reef Club have raised new concerns among critics of the Republican governor’s handling of the pandemic.

“This is wrong on so many levels,” state Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Floridians life saving vaccines should NOT depend on a rich zip code or how big your political contribution is!!!”

Neither Rauner nor DeSantis immediately returned messages from The Washington Post late on Wednesday. The Ocean Reef Club and the medical center there also didn’t respond to messages from The Post.

DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice told the Herald that the governor played no role in choosing the Ocean Reef Club as a vaccine site.

“This was not a state-supported senior community POD [point of distribution], nor was it requested by the governor,’’ Beatrice said in an email. “The state has utilized a variety of approaches including walk-up, drive-thru, and faith-based initiatives to ensure vaccine access to all eligible Floridians, particularly in underserved communities. These efforts have resulted in Florida vaccinating over 50% of our state’s senior population — the highest of any state in the nation.”

It’s not clear exactly how the vaccine ended up at the Ocean Reef Club.

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Statewide, DeSantis has taken a personal hand in directing “pop-up” vaccination centers, the Herald reported. Last month, that led to ire from both Democrats and Republicans after he organized one in a mostly White, affluent part of Manatee County and then threatened to take vaccine away from counties where officials criticized his approach.

“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 in February. “We’re totally happy to do that.”

Critics have also accused DeSantis of using the vaccine distribution plan to appeal to donors; he has raised more than $2.7 million in February alone since he began the “pop-up” clinics, the Herald reported. DeSantis has disputed those allegations, saying his office is simply prioritizing getting vaccine to seniors.

In January, health officials in the Florida Keys were urging seniors to stay patient. Since then, challenges with technology and limited vaccination sites have kept some eligible residents from getting vaccine. As of Wednesday, more than 12,100 doses had been given in Monroe County, which encompasses the Keys, according to the state’s data.

Ocean Reef Club is a high-security, gated community filled with luxury vacation homes. Homeowners pay annual membership fees to the Ocean Reef Club on top of the cost of their properties, which range from $900,000 condominiums to homes worth more than $10 million, according to the club’s website.

All 17 Key Largo residents who have contributed to the Friends of DeSantis committee over the past four years live in Ocean Reef Club properties, the Herald reported, though Rauner is the only one who has donated in 2021 after the coronavirus vaccine was distributed.

By Jan. 22, 75 percent of the Club’s 1,600 homeowners had been vaccinated, according to a community newsletter obtained by the Herald. The club acknowledged in that letter that it had received enough vaccine to provide two doses to each of the 1,200 members eligible to receive the shot.

“We are fortunate to have received enough vaccines to ensure both the first and second for those vaccinated,” the newsletter said, according to the Herald. “At this time, however, the majority of the State has not received an allocation of first doses of vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear.”

The revelations about Ocean Reef Club’s vaccine access led some critics to highlight disparities between wealthy, largely White communities that have received a disproportionate number of vaccine doses and less affluent communities with more people of color that have suffered more dire consequences during the pandemic.

“Want to see systemic racism in data?” Florida state Rep. Omari Hardy (D) said in a tweet Wednesday night. “Look at the vaccination rates by race for senior citizens in my county. 67% of white seniors. 34% of Black seniors. 31% of Hispanic seniors. It’s hard to survive a pandemic while being Black or Hispanic in Ron DeSantis’s Florida.”

Other Florida officials had already called for an investigation into DeSantis’s vaccine plan. Nikki Fried, Florida’s commissioner of agriculture and consumer services and the state’s highest-ranking Democrat, wrote a scathing letter to members of the U.S. House on Monday urging them to investigate the Florida governor for alleged “political favoritism.”

She said the governor may have acted improperly by putting “pop-up” sites in wealthy Zip codes, and cited accusations that DeSantis withheld vaccine from the largely Hispanic community of Hialeah, Fla., where the mayor has often criticized the governor.

“These disturbing incidents are indicative of an inept distribution of vaccines at best, and corrupt political patronage at worst,” Fried wrote on Monday.

Following the Herald’s report, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) demanded a federal investigation into DeSantis’s vaccine rollout.

“Yet another wealthy community connected to Governor DeSantis’s political donors got to skip to the very front of the line for the COVID vaccine — in January,” he wrote in a tweet. “The Department of Justice must investigate. Period.”

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