Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is facing criticism after deciding this month that he would revoke COVID-19 vaccine access at health centers in Palm Beach County and instead, funnel the states’ vaccine supply through Publix, a regional grocery chain. His decision comes just a few weeks after Publix donated $100,000 to his PAC, Friends of Ron DeSantis.
After the county runs out of its current supply, which health officials say will happen early next month, officials confirmed this week that the state would no longer distribute vaccines through Palm Beach’s health department and will be giving them directly to Publix. DeSantis says that the county will be a “test site” for the pilot program to funnel the state’s vaccines through Publix.
“I am absolutely disgusted that the governor of this state has 100 percent taken the ability to vaccinate our residents out of the hands of our public health officials and our medical officials and given that authority to a corporate entity,” said the county commissioner at a meeting. Palm Beach County has a population of nearly 1.5 million people. Some of the county’s residents live 40 miles away from a Publix.
Florida’s vaccine administration has thus far been rocky and, in some ways, discriminatory, some report, and many worry that the distribution of the vaccine through Publix will only cause further disparities. So far, the Miami Herald writes, vaccine administration has favored the wealthy in Florida — the highest vaccination rates are in wealthy counties and the lowest are in the poorer counties. The disparity is wide: in one wealthy oceanfront county, half of the residents have been vaccinated. But in one county where 40 percent of the residents experience poverty, only two percent have been vaccinated.
There are also disparities along racial lines in vaccine administration in the state. According to data from the state, approximately 4.9 percent of the people who have been vaccinated so far are Black despite Black people making up 16.9 percent of the population. In Palm Beach, Black people make up 3 percent of the vaccinated population and 19.8 percent of the population overall. Nikki Fried, a state official, told NPR that, with regards to the vaccine distribution disparities, “We have seen numbers that should be morally shocking.”
Democratic member of the House of Representatives in Florida Omari Hardy, who represents part of Palm Beach County, expressed his concerns with the decision on Twitter: “There are entire communities that don’t have a Publix, communities like the Glades, which is majority Black, rural, and economically depressed. Other Black communities with Publixes, like Riviera Beach in my district, don’t have pharmacies at them. So no vaccines there either.”
“The decision to make Publix the sole vaccine distributor in Palm Beach County means that Black people will continue to struggle to gain access to this vaccine. He has to know this,” Hardy continued. “This is more evidence DeSantis doesn’t care one bit about Black people. Not one bit.”
Three mayors in the county recently wrote a letter to the governor expressing their concern over this decision. “In more affluent communities, none of those distances would be a barrier to getting the vaccine,” the mayors wrote. “This is simply unacceptable, and, quite frankly, unconscionable. Placing such a barrier on an already vulnerable, highly underserved population cannot be allowed to happen.”
“When we first started there were people concerned about, really hesitant about taking the shots, skeptical about it,” one mayor told HuffPost. “We’ve been out there knocking on doors letting people know, trying to encourage them to take the vaccine … now they’re excited and willing to do this and now they’re hearing that they have to go 35-40 miles away.”
DeSantis’s office denies that there is any connection between the donation and his decision to exclusively distribute the vaccines to the public via one grocery chain in Palm Beach. However, many Florida residents have been left with unanswered questions about why he’s chosen to do it. Some have pointed out that even opening availability to other pharmacy chains like Walgreens — which has donated less to DeSantis’s campaign than Publix — would be helpful.
In West Virginia, where they are outpacing the rest of the country in vaccination rates, officials have found success in what is essentially the opposite strategy from DeSantis’s recent decision: since chain stores like Walgreens and CVS aren’t as widely spread in West Virginia, they have instead been focusing on distributing to local pharmacies and independent stores. More than 9 percent of the state’s residents have received their first dose there, as opposed to an average of 6 percent nationwide.