’60 Minutes’ section on Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout spotlights claims of Gov. Ron DeSantis favoring rich

Sunday’s episode of the CBS news program “60 Minutes” took an in-depth look at questions of vaccine favoritism in a report highlighting how donors to the campaign of Gov. Ron DeSantis were involved in the vaccine rollout in Florida.

The report touched on a controversial vaccine pop-up clinic in Lakewood Ranch that drew a federal complaint, which was first reported by the USA TODAY Network; the state’s arrangement with Publix to distribute vaccine; and the disparity in vaccine distribution in Palm Beach County.

Vaccine favoritism questions have dogged the governor since the early days of the rollout, starting with the state’s partnership in January with Publix, which donated $100,000 to the governor’s political committee in December, to conduct vaccinations.

“60 Minutes” reporter Sharyn Alfonsi questioned whether DeSantis favored Publix, a grocery chain that donated to his campaign, in Palm Beach County, which relied heavily on Publix for vaccine distribution early in the rollout.

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The “60 Minutes” report highlighted how residents of one of the poorest areas of Palm Beach County, the heavily minority communities ringing Lake Okeechobee in the Everglades region, had to travel long distances to reach a Publix.

“That’s a fake narrative,” DeSantis told Alfonsi. “I met with the county mayor, I met with the administrator, I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County, and I said here’s some of the options: We can do more drive-thru sites, we can give more to hospitals, we can do the Publix. And they said we think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.”

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Pressed by Alfonsi that “the criticism is it’s pay to play,” DeSantis responded, “It’s wrong, it’s a fake narrative.”

The “60 Minutes” segment touched on how DeSantis came under scrutiny for tapping housing developers who donated to his campaign to host vaccine pop-up clinics. Rep. Charlie Crist, D-Fla., requested an investigation by the Department of Justice.

The report mentioned a state-run vaccine clinic in Lakewood Ranch and Pat Neal, a prominent DeSantis donor who builds homes in Lakewood Ranch and other communities that received special access to the vaccine.

DeSantis turned to Rex Jensen, president and CEO of Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, to host a clinic in February in his community. Schroeder-Manatee Ranch contributed $2,000 to the governor’s 2018 campaign.

The Lakewood Ranch vaccine clinic was restricted to residents of two wealthy ZIP codes, sparking public outrage. Manatee County Commission Chair Vanessa Baugh, who helped coordinate the clinic, created a VIP vaccination list that included herself and Jensen.

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis partnered with the Publix grocery store chain to distribute COVID-19 vaccines.

“60 Minutes” noted that the Lakewood Ranch clinic was the subject of a federal complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General. Broward County resident Matthew Issman, a former law enforcement officer, alleged in the complaint that the clinic engaged in “a discriminatory and fraudulent practice as the U.S. government is supplying the vaccines to the state.”

Neal’s company organized a vaccine clinic in Charlotte County. Neal said in a news release that the governor “reached out to ask for assistance” in coordinating a vaccination event. Neal served on DeSantis’ transition team and contributed $125,000 to his political committee. He is a former state senator who has long been active in Republican politics and is a leading fundraiser for GOP campaigns.

Neal set up the clinic at Kings Gate, a southwest Florida community where he builds homes. The Sarasota Herald-Tribune reported that Neal’s company invited residents of other communities to participate in the Charlotte County clinic, including two upscale Sarasota County communities that Neal is developing: the Boca Royale Golf & Country Club in Englewood and the Grand Palm development in Venice.

Boca Royale has homes valued at more than $1 million. Grand Palm has homes approaching that price level.

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At least 150 communities had pop-up clinics or priority access to vaccine

A USA TODAY Network analysis of state and local government records, news reports and information from private developers found at least 150 communities that landed vaccine pop-ups or priority access to doses, though data provided by the state is incomplete.

Pop-up clinics offering exclusive vaccine access sprouted at country clubs and golf course communities stretching from Delray Beach to Lakeland and Ocala. Special clinics dotted the state’s west coast, from the Tampa exurbs to Naples, where shots were given at a clubhouse in a community with two private beaches and homes that have sold for more than $14 million. A pair of yacht clubs in Martin County and the Florida Keys secured special vaccine access.

Some of these communities are home to large DeSantis donors.

Some communities are home to large DeSantis donors

According to the Miami Herald, a newsletter sent Jan. 22 to Ocean Reef Club residents reported that more than 1,200 of them had been vaccinated. A home under construction in the club’s Sunrise Cay neighborhood is listed at $19.9 million.

Bruce Rauner, a resident and former Republican governor of Illinois, cut a $250,000 check to the governor’s political committee shortly after the club’s residents were vaccinated, according to state records.

DeSantis said during a news conference that the state was not involved in getting the vaccine doses to Ocean Reef, but a spokeswoman at Baptist Health, the hospital that distributed the doses, said Ocean Reef’s medical center asked the state for the doses, and state officials sent them to Baptist Health with instructions to pass them along, according to the Herald.

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Another upscale community that received special vaccine access is Pelican Bay in Naples, a 6,500-home development with two private beaches and a private tram system. Homes in the community’s most exclusive beachfront neighborhood have sold for $14.9 million, $16.4 million and $24.5 million.

Pelican Bay is home to more than two dozen DeSantis donors, including one who gave $25,000.

Please follow Herald-Tribune Political Editor Zac Anderson on Twitter at @zacjanderson.

This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: ’60 Minutes’: Fla. Gov. Ron DeSantis denies COVID vaccine favoritism

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