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DeSantis Breaks With CDC, Puts Vaccine Focus On Seniors Over Essential Workers

Chris O'Meara
AP Photo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media after watching the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine delivered Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

Five more people are confirmed to have died from coronavirus in Duval County since Tuesday, and the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Duval jumped by nearly 700 overnight. And with two days until Christmas, more than 320 people in the county remain hospitalized with a primary diagnosis of COVID-19.

Nine more people are also recorded to have died of the virus in Clay County since Tuesday.

They are among the 121 additional people in Florida who died of complications related to coronavirus, as the state saw a surge of more than 11,300 new infections in a day. 

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced the state is pivoting to give the vast majority of shots to seniors due to their increased risk of illness and death from the coronavirus. The first wave of COVID-19 vaccinations in Florida went primarily to people under age 65.

DeSantis on Wednesday released an executive order that made clear people 65 and older will have priority for shots, though he acknowledged the state will not immediately have enough vaccine doses for all of Florida’s millions of seniors.

“Our first priority for the general population, once the nurses, doctors and long-term care facilities are done, is to vaccinate people 65 and up,” DeSantis said during a stop at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital Pensacola, which got its first vaccine shipment this week.

As of Tuesday night, 12.5 percent of COVID-19 vaccinations in the state had been administered to people 65 and older, according to data posted on the Florida Department of Health website. 

Of the 68,133 vaccine doses administered from Dec. 14 to Tuesday, 8,524 had gone to people 65 and older, with 1,439 administered to people 85 and older. Conversely, people ages 35 to 44 received the most vaccination doses, accounting for 22.2 percent of the total during the period.

The data reflect that the first round of vaccine doses went to front-line health care workers and residents and staff members at long term care facilities, which were the two groups that the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended receive vaccinations during the early weeks when demand outpaces supply. Nearly 59 percent of the initial wave of vaccinations in Florida went to women.

Florida has followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommendations during so-called Phase 1A distribution of the vaccines, but DeSantis has Florida charting its own path during a subsequent phase.

The CDC updated its guidelines Sunday to recommend that “frontline essential” workers, such as first responders, teachers and grocery-store workers, and people 75 and older receive vaccinations next. DeSantis, however, repeated on Wednesday that he did not think that “people who are 73, 74” should be behind younger workers.

That marked the third time in recent days that DeSantis has taken swipes at the federal agency for the guidelines.

While stressing that hospitals would soon be turning their focus to seniors, DeSantis, however, urged that older residents be patient because of a limited vaccine supply for the next few weeks.

“I would say, ‘Just bear with us,’” he said. “If we have enough vaccine, we’ll get it out.”

The executive order issued Wednesday said that, during the initial phase, health-care providers “shall only vaccinate” long-term care facility residents and staff members, people 65 and older and health-care workers with direct patient contact. It also allows hospitals to “vaccinate persons who they deem to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”

A 2020 Census projection estimated about 3.17 million people in Florida were 70 or older. 

Florida hospitals have been responsible for getting front-line health workers vaccinated, with a shipment of 100,000 Pfizer vaccine doses going last week to five facilities: UF Health Jacksonville, AdventHealth Orlando, Tampa General Hospital, Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County and Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami-Dade. Another 170-plus hospitals were slated to receive doses of a Moderna vaccine beginning this week.

The federal government signed agreements with CVS Health and Walgreens to administer the vaccine in long-term care facilities. Neither of the pharmacy chains started providing vaccinations to Florida long-term care residents until this week, according to corporate announcements.

Irked at the delay, DeSantis last week ordered Florida National Guard-led “strike” teams into nursing facilities in Broward and Pinellas counties to administer the vaccine to residents. The DeSantis administration also provided Pfizer doses to six long-term care facilities in Miami- Dade. 

DeSantis said that he would continue to direct the state teams into nursing facilities as part of the state’s efforts to ensure that every resident of long-term care facilities has been provided access to the vaccine. 

But the Florida Assisted Living Association on Wednesday sent a letter to DeSantis asking when residents of assisted living facilities and adult family care homes will start receiving vaccinations. The letter said the association represents more than 600 assisted living communities.

"All our member facilities, their residents and families, are eagerly awaiting notification as to when they can expect to start receiving the COVID-19 vaccines," said the letter from Veronica Catoe, the association's chief executive officer. "It has been communicated to me that Walgreens and CVS have not received approval to begin scheduling in ALFs and AFCHs, and we are looking to you for clarification of when they will receive approval to begin scheduling and administration."