A bipartisan group from Florida’s congressional delegation sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis Friday afternoon, requesting a briefing on the state’s tumultuous COVID-19 vaccination process so they can provide basic information to their constituents, including the timeline, order and roles of the state and county governments in making the shots available.
The group, spearheaded by Democratic U.S. Rep. Stephanie Murphy of Winter Park, asks for a meeting with DeSantis or his representative “as soon as feasible.” It’s signed by 14 members of Congress, including Miami-Dade County Republicans Carlos Gimenez, Mario Diaz-Balart and María Elvira Salazar, though she has not yet been sworn in because of a COVID-19 diagnosis.
Broward County Democrats Ted Deutch and Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Palm Beach County Democrat Lois Frankel also signed the letter.
A meeting, the letter said, “would enable us to respond to those constituent inquiries, conduct oversight of the vaccination process, and better advocate for the federal government to provide additional technical or other assistance where appropriate and necessary for smooth distribution. All of us share your goal of making the vaccination process in Florida as swift and effective as possible in order to save lives.”
Along with questions about when and how the vaccine will continue to be distributed, the letter also asked for information about insurance and whether Medicare, Medicaid or no insurance at all will play a role in who gets the shots.
Other signers included U.S. Reps. Alcee Hastings, Gus Bilirakis, Val Demings, Charlie Crist, Kathy Castor, Darren Soto and Al Lawson Jr.
Sen. Rick Scott sent his own letter Friday, asking Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees — who’s been notably absent on the vaccine rollout — to address a list of concerns. Scott asked how the state will resolve problems like long lines and wait times, delayed distribution to assisted living facilities and out-of-state “snowbirds,” who residents fear are taking up vaccine slots.
“It is vital that we get the vaccine out as safely and efficiently as possible, without unnecessary delays,” Scott wrote.
The demand for vaccines in Florida has been huge, with thousands of appointments snatched up in minutes and web traffic crashing the portals hospitals have set up to register for appointments.
The state has put most of the responsibility on the hospitals, and on Monday, DeSantis blamed them for the bumpy start to vaccinations and the first come, first served system that left thousands camped outside or struggling to make appointments.
“The state is not dictating to hospitals how they run their operations,” he said at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami Monday. “That would be a total disaster. These guys are much more competent to be able to deliver healthcare services than a state government could ever be. We are empowering the hospitals.”
But with little uniformity in the way the hospitals are tackling the rollout, many of those seeking the potentially lifesaving shots have been left without clear direction, frustrated or sidelined.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunology expert and professor at John Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security, said she wishes there was more coordination so people didn’t need to “shop” to receive a vaccine.
“The [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] put a lot of thought into the prioritization group that reflects who would benefit more from receiving the vaccine,” she said.
DeSantis, however, chose not to follow the CDC guidance.
The CDC’s guidelines say the first priorities for getting the vaccine should be people over the age of 75 and front-line essential workers such as teachers, first responders, food and agricultural workers and others.
DeSantis’ plan lowered the minimum age, allowing those 65 and over to get vaccinated as part of the first phase of the vaccine administration. This phase also allows for vaccine distribution to long-term care facility residents and staff, healthcare workers with direct patient contact and others that healthcare providers deem to be “extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”
There have also been rollout concerns over certain nursing homes and hospitals that vaccinated wealthy donors or community members. At least three South Florida hospital systems — Jackson Health, Mount Sinai Medical Center and Baptist Health — already reached out and offered vaccines to some donors in advance of the general public.
On Thursday, Scott called for a congressional investigation into what he called “vaccine distribution mismanagement,” after reports that a West Palm Beach nursing home and assisted-living facility put board members and major donors at the front of its vaccine list.
DeSantis dismissed Scott’s call for an investigation, saying he’d already ordered Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to investigate MorseLife Health System.
At a press conference in Vero Beach Thursday, the governor said: “This is something we’re already investigating. … The nursing home and long-term care program is for residents and staff of long-term care facilities. That’s who it’s for.”