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DeSantis, Fried Square Off After Latest Report On Vaccine Access

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is the only Democrat elected to statewide office and is reportedly considering a run next year against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis.

Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried is renewing calls for a federal investigation into vaccine access in Florida. Gov. Ron DeSantis called the allegations "total politics."

After learning that residents of the ultra-wealthy Ocean Reef Club in North Key Largo received coronavirus vaccines in early January — well before most Floridians had a chance to sign up for the shot — Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and other Democrats are renewing calls for a federal investigation into vaccine access in Florida.

The Miami Herald reported that "almost all" the residents of Ocean Reef who are 65 and older received the vaccine at the exclusive community's medical center. The Herald also reported that 17 residents donated $5,000 each to Gov. Ron DeSantis' political committee and that one of them, former Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, sent $250,000 in late February.

At a Thursday press conference, DeSantis dismissed the Herald story as a "poorly executed hit piece." He said the Ocean Reef vaccinations came through a hospital system, not the state, and he had no control over where the doses landed.

But he said he was glad the residents got the shots.

“I want seniors to get shots, and I think they did a great job doing that. We just weren’t involved with that in any way, shape or form,” he said in Crystal River. “If you are 65 and up, I am not worried about your income bracket. I am worried about your age bracket, because it’s the age and not the income that shows the risk. So, if they were able to go into a community that is heavily senior and vaccinate people, that is very, very good. So, for that article to suggest that somehow that was one of our sites, that is just factually wrong.”

Fried called for the FBI to investigate how that happened and said consumers are not being treated fairly. Also, Florida Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer wrote to the U.S. Department of Justice to probe “potential wrongdoing” by the governor.

"The fact pattern is simply just too clear to avoid. Give campaign contribution big dollars, get special access to vaccines. Ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farm workers," Fried said.

In a letter to Acting U.S. Attorney General Monte Wilkinson, Farmer noted “several well-documented reports of exclusive vaccination sites that limited access to paying members of private clubs and residents of affluent gated communities.” The sites “have been preceded with or followed by substantial contributions” to DeSantis’ political committee. The committee received $2.7 million in February, as DeSantis gears up for his 2022 reelection campaign.

Fried is the only Democrat in office in Florida who was elected statewide and is reportedly considering a run against DeSantis next year. She had earlier called for Congress to investigate vaccine access in Florida after a state pop-up vaccine site served only residents of two wealthy ZIP codes in Manatee County.

At another appearance in Sebring, to announce an effort to boost vaccine distribution in rural areas, DeSantis said the allegations were “total politics"

"We’re really proud of being able to do vaccines in almost every way imaginable,” DeSantis told a reporter.

Information from News Service of Florida was used in this report.

Copyright 2021 WLRN 91.3 FM. To see more, visit WLRN 91.3 FM.

Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.