Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried has joined Democratic U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist in calling for federal officials to probe the DeSantis administration’s vaccine distribution programs.
Fried spoke out following a report by the Miami Herald that seniors in a wealthy enclave in Key Largo received hundreds of life-saving vaccinations as early as mid-January.
During a Thursday press conference at the Florida Capitol, Fried called on the FBI’s public corruption unit to launch an investigation.
"If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said.
DeSantis pushed back at his own news conference Thursday, saying a local hospital — not the state — was behind the vaccinations of more than 1,200 residents of the exclusive Ocean Reef Club in Key Largo and that the state "wasn't involved in it in any shape or form."
Officials from Monroe County, home to Key Largo, said the affluent club’s medical center, which is an affiliate of Baptist Health Hospital, received the vaccines through the hospital as part of the governor’s program to vaccinate communities with a populations of people 65 and older. County spokeswoman Kristen Livengood said the allocations were coordinated through Baptist and the state of Florida.
"Baptist Health has been working with the State of Florida to provide logistical support to distribute COVID-19 vaccine doses across the South Florida community through hospitals, clinics and partners, from Palm Beach to the Florida Keys, including the Medical Center at Ocean Reef," a Baptist Health spokesperson wrote in a statement. "Our mission is simply to get as many shots out as we can, as safely and as fast as we can, based on guidance from the State and vaccine availability. To date, we have vaccinated approximately 33,000 people, and we remain focused on the important task of protecting and caring for our community."
In recent weeks, other reports have surfaced of wealthy retirement communities getting access to vaccine doses through pop-up vaccine sites. Democrats have criticized him for choosing those places, but the governor’s office has noted that more than half of them have been in Democratic stronghold counties of Broward and Palm Beach. Supporters of DeSantis say he has also coordinated clinics with faith-based groups in underserved areas, including many at Black churches.
"Give campaign contributions big dollars, get special access to vaccines - ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farmworkers and so many of our residents here in our state of Florida who are scared and who are wanting vaccines," Fried said.
Last week, Crist, a former Florida governor, asked the U.S. Department of Justice to look into possible favoritism in the state's distribution of the vaccines, asserting that DeSantis was benefiting "political allies and donors, over the needs of higher-risk communities and existing county waitlists.”
Both Crist and Fried are considering campaigns to oppose DeSantis in next year's gubernatorial election.
DeSantis said the Herald article's suggestions were without merit, as the state has worked to vaccine seniors 65 and older since vaccines became available in mid-December.
"If you're 65 and up, I'm not worried about your income bracket, I'm worried about your age bracket because it's the age, not the income that shows the risk," DeSantis said. "It was a really really poorly executed hit piece."