Donald Trump courts seniors in Fort Myers speech, announcing free vaccines when they're approved for nursing homes

President Donald Trump used a Friday visit to Fort Myers to court seniors with news he had reached a deal with major pharmacy chains to distribute free COVID-19 vaccines, once they become available, to nursing homes.

The president spoke for roughly 45 minutes before an invite-only crowd of several hundred loyalists, local Republican leaders and members of his campaign at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center & Amphitheater in the city's downtown. 

"I am thrilled to announce that we have just finalized the partnership with CVS and Walgreens ... to immediately deliver the vaccine directly to nursing homes at no cost to our seniors,” Trump said in front of a backdrop stating “Protecting America’s Seniors.”

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President Donald Trump  speaks at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Amphitheater in downtown Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

The president said the country is "on track" to deliver 100 million doses of vaccines this year. Though White House coronavirus advisor Anthony Fauci recently said that “it might take some time” to get a vaccine to Americans, possibly next spring.

Trump's speech more broadly focused on themes important to older Americans and retirees, including Medicare, Social Security and drug prices. He also acknowledged that older Americans may still not feel safe leaving their homes for fear of getting sick from what he repeatedly called "the China virus."

"Many older Americans have endured months of isolation — missing weddings, births, graduations, church and family reunions," Trump said. "Do you know that my heart breaks for every grieving family that has lost a precious loved one? I feel their anguish and I mourn their loss. I feel their pain."

One of the first big applauses came when Trump said the nation's COVID-19 fatality rate had dropped 85%. It's a version of a claim the president has made for months; according to Politifact, it is "half true" and misleading. 

Trump's speech frequently veered off topic and into attacks on his political opponents, including former Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. Kamala Harris. At one point, the crowd broke out into a chant of "Lock her up," in reference to Clinton.

He told the crowd that Biden is beholden to "radical leftists" whose policies would strip seniors of their health care and lead to medical rationing, without offering proof. He also said undocumented residents are draining the Medicare and Social Security systems, but non-citizens don't receive Medicare.

"As I fight to protect our amazing seniors from the China virus, I'm also fighting to protect you from another danger, one which threatens everything we cherish, value and worked our entire lives to build," Trump said. "As we gather today, seniors are under threat from a radical left movement that seeks to destroy the American way of life."

Trump was accompanied on his visit by Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar and Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.

President Donald Trump arrives in Fort Myers aboard Air Force One.

After the speech, Azar told reporters that the announcement of the deal with major pharmacies is "really big." 

"That enables us to get to those most vulnerable individuals as soon as we have vaccines that are approved by the FDA,” he said.

COVID-19 has claimed more than 6,400 lives of residents and staff in Florida's nursing homes and assisted living facilities since the pandemic began. 

In Lee County, 252 residents and staff members in long-term care centers have died; in Collier County, there have been 108 deaths.

A coordinated federal response to the pandemic has been lacking, said Katie Smith Sloan, CEO of LeadingAge, a national association of nonprofit providers of aging services. But Friday she was optimistic about the proposed program.

“The vaccine is still months away, so there is time to get this right,” she said. “Above all, we hope this program will help protect the millions of people most at risk. We look forward to learning more about how it will roll out.”

A spokesperson for the Florida Health Care Association said in a statement that it "appreciates the administration, CVS and Walgreens for partnering together to prioritize the distribution of a vaccine to our long-term care residents. Our care centers continue working vigilantly to keep their residents safe, and we look forward to being part of the process to facilitate this monumental endeavor."

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Fort Myers mayor Randy Henderson announces to the crowd that President Donald Trump as arrived at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Amphitheater in downtown Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

During his speech, Trump offered shout-outs to Southwest Florida leaders including Cape Coral Mayor Joe Coviello and Fort Myers Randy Henderson.

"We have some crowd. The mayor’s said he has never seen anything like this," Trump said of Henderson. "There’s a lot of love outside.”

Trump also lauded Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and joked about the loud applause he heard for DeSantis, who was seated nearby. I "thought Elvis had just entered the room." 

Addressing a key voter demographic, suburban women, Trump said, "You know why they like me, because I'm saving their homes. They may not like me, but they like what I’m doing. Suburban women want security, safety, law and order, they want their homes to be protected."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledeges the crowd at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Amphitheater in downtown Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Trump also praised the nation's military resources. “We have the greatest weapons on earth," he said. “Nobody has the equipment we have in the world.”

He closed his speech, thanking seniors. “You seniors have protected us, and now I as a senior and all of my people, we are protecting you.”

Attendees of the speech praised it.

“It was a good speech," said Matt Hurley, 24, of Fort Myers, who sat three rows from the president. 

"The Democrats want to have an entirely government run system. ... The left has gone too far left," he said. “In a second term, I do think Trump is going to continue to roll back Obamacare. But I do think he is going to have to do something about health care.”

Outside, people lined the streets to welcome the president to downtown Fort Myers. They were peaceful gatherings apart from the tension that erupted between a Trump supporter and a Trump critic.  

A man in a Trump hat pushed a woman waving a sign with the word "Liar" on it to the ground. The woman, carrying a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution, approached Fort Myers police to file a complaint.

June and Jac Colmer protest before a Trump event at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Ampitheater in Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Cameron McGinty, a 32-year-old Cape Coral resident, carried a massive U.S. flag in downtown Fort Myers. “I like Trump because he’s pro-God, pro-life and pro-gun,” he said. “He’s not afraid to get people upset with the truth.”

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Jennifer Scuteri, a Fort Myers attorney and Sanibel Island resident, held a Biden-Harris campaign sign out the convention center.   

“I wanted to be here to represent the Democrats in Lee County and let people know not everyone is a Trump supporter,” she said. 

Earlier in the day, supporters of Democratic presidential candidate Biden and running mate Harris showed up with Biden flags, signs, T-shirts and even face masks. Then they rolled out from the Broadway Palm Dinner Theatre parking lot on their way to downtown Fort Myers. 

Kathy Hudson, left, holds a sign that says "Liar" while Alba Williams, center, and Carmen Turner, right, hold up Trump flags as a crowd gathers before a Trump event at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Ampitheater in Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

Friday's caravan of cars and trucks was designed to show the strength of the Democratic Party in Southwest Florida, said organizer Wally Hedman of Bonita Springs.  Hedman said he quickly organized the "Ridin' With Biden" caravan — his eighth in Lee County — after hearing that Trump was visiting Friday.

More than 22 cars and trucks formed the caravan to travel along Colonial and Cleveland avenues, through downtown Fort Myers, and then along Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Rex Eiland, 56, of North Fort Myers said he doesn't like the administration's ongoing efforts to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. 

"I've got several underlying health conditions," he said. "Obama and Biden helped to get us health care coverage, and now it's being threatened to be taken away.

"And now we're in the middle of this health crisis, you know? And that's deadly."

Debi Chesebro, left, takes a selfie with Scott Waltz, right, in his Trump wig before a Trump event at the Caloosa Sound Convention Center and Ampitheater in Fort Myers on Friday, October 16, 2020.

The Biden campaign had criticized Trump’s visit to Florida.

"President Trump will hold another pair of events today, this time in Ocala and Fort Myers, where he is sure to continue to deflect and dodge his record,” Biden said in a statement. “There’s no hiding that Floridians are worse off after four years with President Trump at the helm.

"Under President Trump’s watch, more than 15,000 Floridians have died from the coronavirus, Florida’s tourism-based economy shrunk by 60% in the second quarter, and unemployment more than tripled in the state. Floridians deserve better than President Trump’s weak leadership. I’ll deliver for you, Florida.”

Staff writers Jake Allen, Kaitlin Greenockle and Liz Freeman contributed to this report.