As he travels the state distributing coronavirus vaccine and repeating his mantra -- Seniors first -- Gov. Ron DeSantis has received praise from grateful seniors, but also criticism from others who say he is using the vaccine to reward conservative, affluent retirement communities.
While he has chosen some of those communities as distribution sites, a review by the NBC 6 Investigators of vaccination rates and counties' concentrations of people 65 and older finds no evidence of political bias in how the shots are flowing.
Instead, there is evidence shots are going in greater rates to older counties -- following the strategy DeSantis laid out based on public health guidance -- and polling shows older voters in Florida happen to trend conservative and vote Republican.
Yes -- the county with the largest concentration of people getting at least one shot is Sumter County -- home to The Villages, a stronghold for Republicans.
The NBC 6 Investigators get results
But Sumter County also has the state's highest share of residents aged 65 or over, the age group DeSantis has from the beginning made a priority for the shots.
"We’re proud of vaccinating seniors," DeSantis said Tuesday in Hialeah, where he announced an effort to boost vaccines in Miami-Dade, which falls below the statewide average in vaccination rate. "We’re going to keep doing it. I can tell you the seniors, when we visit these communities and we’re able to do it, man, they are so, so thankful."
But DeSantis' decision to set up vaccine efforts in some exclusive communities has gotten the attention of, among others, former governor and now-U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Pinellas) and Comedy Central's The Daily Show.
Crist is asking the Justice Department to investigate what he called DeSantis’ “blatantly political vaccine distributions.”
The Daily Show produced a satirical ad for what it called "DeSantis' Club Vax," where political supporters who "make the donations rain cut to the front of the line to get vaccinated."
Asked Tuesday what he thought of Crist's claim that distribution has been politically motivated, DeSantis laughed, then said, "I’m not sure of the calculation. I don't think it’s an effective political tack, to attack me for vaccinating seniors. Yes, we are aggressively vaccinating seniors and I don’t care who you vote for and I think the proof of the pudding in that is that Broward has had the most of these community visits of any other place in the state."
An NBC 6 review of counties with the highest share of its 65+ population getting at least one shot found no pattern of political bias.
Among large- and medium-sized counties, St. Johns leads the pack -- with over 70% of seniors getting at least one shot. The county supported DeSantis by 30 points in his razor-thin 2018 election victory over Democrat Andrew Gillum.
But the second most successful such county, Leon, is just a percentage point behind, at 69%, and it supported Gillum by 28 points.
Clocking in at 62% is Nassau County, which DeSantis won by 46 points; but just behind it is Alachua, where he lost by 27 points.
While it's true that Republican-heavy counties are getting more shots per capita, there's no evidence it is a result of political leanings.
But there is clear evidence it is because those counties trend older and, in Florida, older voters trend more conservative and more Republican.
And, for now at least, they are the only cohort of the general public eligible for the vaccine.