Gov. Ron DeSantis still furious over 'obvious B.S.'; 60 Minutes defends vaccine segment

Jane Musgrave
Palm Beach Post
An angry Gov. Ron DeSantis, seen here at a press conference at a Publix Super Market in Ponte Vedra Beach, on Jan. 13, 2021, on Wednesday again slammed '60 Minutes' for suggesting that Black residents of the Glades were victims of what it branded “a pay to play” scheme.

Using charts to show that thousands of coronavirus vaccines have been pumped into Palm Beach County, an angry Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday again slammed a national news show for suggesting that Black residents of the Glades were victims of what it branded “a pay to play” scheme.

Contrary to claims by 60 Minutes, Publix did not have an “exclusive contract” to distribute vaccines in Palm Beach County, DeSantis said during a news conference in Tallahassee.

“The exclusive deal was a lie. They knew it was a lie, but they put it on the air anyway,” he said of the newscast that he labeled both  “a ridiculous smear” and “obvious B.S.”

More:COVID in Florida: County commissioners furious about Publix vaccine plan

More:COVID: Are the rich on Palm Beach cutting in line to get vaccine?

The Lakeland-based grocery giant never had a contract with Florida, and the state never paid it “one red cent” to distribute vaccines, he said.

“It’s a manufactured conspiracy theory,” said DeSantis, a Republican with presidential ambitions.

It marked the third day in a row the show that aired on Sunday has roiled the statehouse and county offices with County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay and County Mayor Dave Kerner, both Democrats, entering the fray.

Show called it 'exclusive contract,' state said it was a math error

What 60 Minutes correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi labeled an “exclusive contract” that Publix got after contributing $150,000 to DeSantis’ 2022 re-election campaign was what state officials previously described as a math error.

In January, when 67 Publix stores in the county began offering vaccines, it took the county’s entire weekly allocation, state emergency manager Jared Moskowitz told The Palm Beach Post at the time.

Further, because there is no Publix store in the Belle Glade area, it effectively made vaccines out of reach for residents of the poverty-wracked farming community who lack reliable transportation.

Publix stores with pharmacies in Palm Beach County

►NOTE: Click on dark green circles for Publix addresses. Light green circles represent a one-mile radius around those Publix's.

►SOURCE: Publix

►CREATED by: Chris Persaud, The Palm Beach Post

Moskowitz told the Post that he didn’t realize all 20,000 doses that county health agencies were to receive would be sent to Publix instead.

After McKinlay blasted the state for stripping the county health department of vaccines and making it nearly impossible for residents of the Glades to get shots, the oversight  was corrected.

"It will make it a little more equitable," Moskowitz told The Post when the state agreed to reduce the number of vaccines that were going to Publix so shots would be available to county health agencies, which are running large and small vaccination clinics.

State emergency manager Jared Moskowitz had told The Palm Beach Post that he didn’t realize all 20,000 vaccine doses that county health agencies were to receive would be sent to Publix instead.

Moskowitz says it was him who decided to ask Publix, not governor

Moskowitz joined DeSantis at the press conference to further explain that it was him, not DeSantis, who decided to ask Publix to distribute vaccines, not just in Palm Beach County, but throughout the state.

"My first choice was Walmart," he said.

But, when the retailer said it would take 21 days to ramp up, he called Publix. Supermarket leaders said they could roll out a vaccination program in 72 hours.

“That’s it,” said Moskowitz, a Democrat who represented Parkland in the state House. “That’s the whole story.”

Further, he said, he told 60 Minutes how the Publix deal unfolded.

“I spoke to them and told them the Publix narrative was malarkey and they went with it anyway,” Moskowitz, a Democrat, said. “It’s certifiably false. I wanted Walmart first.”

More:Palm Beach County commissioner slams Mayor Dave Kerner after 60 Minutes report on vaccines

More:COVID outbreak in Belle Glade: How its hospital, mayor and commissioner have led the city's response

In a statement, 60 Minutes defended the story, saying it was spurred by state data that “revealed people of color were vaccinated at a much lower rate than their wealthier neighbors.”

While state data doesn’t include income, it clearly shows that inoculation rates among whites are disproportionately higher than those of Blacks or Hispanics.

Whites in state getting shots at much higher rate than Blacks, Hispanics

As of Wednesday, of the 6.63 million people in the state who had gotten at least one shot, 68% were white, 6.4% were Black and 13.3% were Hispanic. Whites make up 53% of the state’s population while Blacks account for 17% and Hispanics 26%.

In the statement, 60 Minutes acknowledged that it talked to Moskowitz twice, but he refused to appear on camera until past its deadline. DeSantis also refused their requests for an interview so they approached him at a news conference.

“The idea we ignored their perspective is untrue,” a spokesman for the show said in the statement.

Gov. Ron DeSantis announces on  Jan. 19, 2021 that vaccinations against COVID-19 are coming to all 67 Publix Super Markets in Palm Beach County. DeSantis made the announcement outside the Publix store at Sea Plum Town Center in Jupiter.

But, DeSantis insisted, the clip of the press conference was edited to distort the facts. 

The full exchange shows him explaining that other retailers, including CVS and Walgreens, were vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities. He explains other steps he had taken as part of his “Seniors First” strategy.

On the program, he is shown barking at Alfonsi after she points out that Publix donated to his political campaign and he then gave it “exclusive rights” to distribute vaccines in Palm Beach County.

“That's a fake narrative,” DeSantis shoots back, adding that he spoke with Mayor Kerner and other county officials who embraced the idea of having Publix distribute vaccines.

In a statement on Monday, Kerner said he called 60 Minutes to explain his role in the Publix plan.

Kerner said he offered his insights to 60 Minutes but his views were ignored

“I offered to provide my insight into Palm Beach County’s vaccination efforts and 60 Minutes declined,” he wrote.

The spokesperson for the program disputed Kerner’s statement, saying the mayor was interviewed “on the record.”

Kerner conceded the point but said he remained baffled why his views were ignored.

“My comments rebutted much of what they aired, but that is no excuse for excluding my comments from their story,” he said in a text on Wednesday. “I have become even more concerned now that I have learned that they spoke directly with State Emergency Management Director Moskowitz, and his comments also were excluded from the story.”

Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner said '60 Minutes' should be ashamed' of their report on the vaccination rollout in Florida.

The statement Kerner released on Monday, in which he also said “60 Minutes should be ashamed,” briefly put him at odds with Commissioner McKinlay. 

McKinlay said Wednesday she declined request by 60 Minutes to appear

In a series of tweets, she disputed DeSantis' claims, saying county officials never wanted Publix to be the sole provider of vaccines in the county. She urged DeSantis to set the record straight.

On Tuesday, however, the two agreed to a truce, acknowledging the battle was between DeSantis and the news program.

On Wednesday, McKinlay declined to further the fight. In an exchange of emails, she declined a request by 60 Minutes to appear on camera to explain why Glades residents were briefly in January left without a vaccination site.

“Mayor Kerner and I agreed today that our comments on this issue were complete,” she responded. “I appreciate your interest but I am going to politely decline. Thanks for shining a light on the plight of the rural communities in my district.”

Days after the state in January restored vaccination allocations to the county health department, it opened a permanent vaccination site in the Glades at Pahokee High School.

For county officials, the uproar, which is being hotly debated nationally, is proving to be an unwanted distraction.

County Administrator Verdenia Baker said she is focused on increasing the number of minority residents who get vaccinated. Multiple efforts are underway to accomplish that, she said.

In the meantime, the number of COVID-19 cases in Florida continued to increase.

On Wednesday, another 5,885 cases were reported statewide, the biggest one-day increase since March 5. 

Cases rise, creating urgency among officials to increase vaccination rates

In the past two weeks, cases have steadily escalated, creating an urgency among health officials to increase vaccination rates before more contagious and slightly more lethal variants take hold.

Like the state, cases in the county are growing. The 501 new infections reported on Wednesday is the most since March 4.

Statewide, the number of people hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19 cracked 3,000 for two days running for the first time since March 17. Still, the patient counts pale compared to the more than 9,000 who were hospitalized in July.

The number of people being treated in county medical centers has stabilized over the past two weeks. The 180 people hospitalized on Wednesday is slightly below the 183 that have been treated during the past 14 days.

Deaths have slowed. An additional 42 were reported on Wednesday, including three in the county. The 404 deaths reported over the past week is the lowest in a seven-day span since March 25.

But the daily  positivity rate, which indicates the risk of infection, remains well above the 5% level at which public health officials can declare that the virus has been continued.

Statewide, the rate was 6.95% and 6.85% in the county.

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COVID BY NUMBERS

2,096,747 — People in Florida who have been diagnosed with the disease.

134,337 — People in the county who have tested positive.

30,907,352 — Confirmed cases in the United States.

132,775,013 — People infected worldwide.

34,476 — Deaths in Florida.

2,731 — Fatalities in the county.

558,956 — Deaths in the U.S.

2,880,681 — Global deaths.

3,914,250 — People in Florida fully vaccinated. Another 2,715,857  are awaiting second doses of the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines.

308,266 — People in the county who are fully vaccinated. Another 173,430  still need second shots.

22.6% — Percentage of state residents over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.

25.4% — Percentage of county residents over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.

24.9% — Percentage of people in the nation over the age of 18 who are fully vaccinated.