Gov. Ron DeSantis blames Lee hospital officials for seniors waiting in long lines to get COVID-19 vaccine

Frank Gluck Kaitlin Greenockle
Fort Myers News-Press

During a tense exchange with a CNN reporter on Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis blamed the Lee Health hospital system for recently causing Lee County seniors to wait in long lines and even camp overnight awaiting access to COVID-19 vaccinations.

Lee Health, a publicly operated health care organization and the largest hospital operator in Southwest Florida, did not respond directly to the charges when asked about them Tuesday.

But Lee Health spokesman Jonathon Little said the organization is doing its best to distribute its limited amount of vaccine.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media after watching the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine delivered Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, at Tampa General Hospital in Tampa, Fla.

DeSantis on Monday was responding to a question from CNN's Rosa Flores in Miami. DeSantis repeatedly tried to cut Flores off before she could finish asking her question. Here is the exchange, in part:

Flores: "My full question is what went wrong with the rollout of the vaccine when we've seen phone lines jammed, websites crashing..."

More:'Be patient and be prepared': Lee County announces COVID vaccine appointments by phone

DeSantis: "So, you're repeating your question."

Flores: "To complete it for you, governor, we've seen websites crash and also senior citizens waiting overnight for the vaccine..."

DeSantis: "Where was that at?"

Flores: "We've seen it in Duval, Broward, Orange and Lee County."

DeSantis: “I was like in Lee, why did that happen? Did you investigate why?"

Flores: “That’s my question to you, governor. You’re the governor of the state. I’m not the governor of the state.”

DeSantis: "OK, but you didn’t investigate why that happened in Lee County, why was there a big line. Did you, did you investigate why?"

Flores: "Could you tell us why?"

DeSantis: "We distributed vaccines to hospitals, and the hospital said, 'First come, first serve. If you show up, we'll do it.' So, they didn't use a registration system. There wasn't anything that was done. And there's a lot of demand for it."

He added that the state is not dictating to hospitals on how to distribute their vaccinations.

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However, it was the county and not the hospital system that held the distribution event last week when seniors waited overnight. 

The county announced Sunday, Dec. 27, that it would hold a COVID-19 vaccine distribution event for high-risk frontline health workers and people 65 and older at several Lee County sites throughout that week starting with the Estero Park and Rec Center the next day. 

About two hours after that Sunday announcement, people began lining up at the Corkscrew Road site. By morning, hundreds were in line in 55-degree temperatures bundled in blankets and coats and parked in lawn chairs prepared for a multi-hour wait.

Lee Health did not comment on how specifically it's distributing to members of the public. It has also been vaccinating its own employees who continue to treat more than 150 patients a day who are infected with COVID-19, according to its own daily reports.

Little, the spokesman for Lee Health, released a statement in response to DeSantis' comments:

"Like Governor DeSantis, we want to vaccinate people in our community as quickly as possible. We are rapidly working towards expanding our ability to offer vaccinations to the community and we will have more to announce tomorrow."

The vaccination operation in Lee County, which is overseen by DeSantis' administration and is run by the Florida Department of Health, has faced criticism for the way vaccines are being doled out.

Related coverage: Department of Health tweet tells all: 'Vaccination at Estero Parks and Recreation has reached capacity'

More: Lee County's vaccine reservation call line shuts down in 3 minutes after scheduling 5,000 shots

On Monday, a call-in line to reserve a spot to get one of the county's 5,000 available vaccines this week had taken enough reservations to shut down within three minutes of going online at noon. Tens of thousands of people called in, the vast majority reporting busy signals and dropped calls.

Even those managing to score a spot said they were confused by the automated system, which asked successful callers to stay on the line — potentially for hours — or wait for a one-time-only callback.

Local resident Raymond Miller said he wife has been holding her phone close for the last 24 hours waiting for the promised follow-up call from the county to schedule a vaccination.

"At 11:30 this morning still holding the phone she gets a notice that she has a voicemail. The phone did not ring," Miller wrote in an email Tuesday to The News-Press. "The voicemail was from the vaccine folks saying we had missed their call and to try next time around. Oh well, what can you do?"

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Officials said the Department of Health phone line received an average of 50,000 calls per minute, with a peak call volume of 84,000 calls per minute. Lee County officials, who are partnering with the health department on the rollout, announced in an email to media at 12:34 p.m. that it had shut down the line.

Tammy Yzaguirre, spokeswoman for the Department of Health in Lee County, said Tuesday that officials do not know when the next shipment of the vaccine will be arriving in the area and how much of it will be offered.

Frank Gluck is a watchdog reporter with The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Connect with him at or on Twitter: @FrankGluck