Pharmacies at the Publix grocery chain were chosen to distribute nearly one-quarter of all COVID-19 vaccines in Florida weeks after the company donated $100,000 to a PAC supporting GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis, CBS News’ “60 Minutes” reported Sunday.
The money trail was one of several linking wealthy supporters of DeSantis to special vaccine access, whether it was a green light to boost business as a vaccine provider or special access to getting the shots.
In another example, the wealthy Republican city of Palm Beach was given 1,000 vaccine doses from an early, limited supply, “60 Minutes” reported. Meanwhile, as Publix was allowed to decide where to focus its efforts to distribute vaccines, a number of the county’s communities of color lagged far behind in access.
Publix, Florida’s largest supermarket chain, has denied any link between the company’s political contribution and its lucrative vaccine contract.
“The irresponsible suggestion that there was a connection between campaign contributions made to Governor DeSantis and our willingness to join other pharmacies in support of the state’s vaccine distribution efforts is absolutely false and offensive,” Publix said in a statement.
Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi compared the situation to a free-for-all “Hunger Games,” with desperate Floridians scrambling for vaccinations and wealthy GOP contributors almost always coming out on top.
The story built on local media reports about special access to vaccines for GOP donors. Those earlier stories triggered a call last month for an investigation into “red carpet vaccine distribution” by state Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried, who also serves as Florida’s consumer watchdog.
Fried cited reports that included nearly every individual over the age of 65 in Ocean Reef Club, a wealthy Key Largo enclave of GOP contributors, receiving vaccines by the middle of January. At the same time, people in most of the rest of the state were desperately scrambling to obtain vaccines.
“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said at a press conference in early March.
DeSantis and his top health official vehemently denied the “60 Minutes” report. Cornered on the Publix contribution, DeSantis repeatedly called it “wrong” and a “fake narrative.”
Rep. Charlie Crist (D-Fla.) had another word for it: “appalling.”
“In Gov. DeSantis’s Florida, money and power rule and everyone else is at the back of the line,” Crist said in a statement. “This callous, cruel and compassionless policy makes ‘Hunger Games’ an apt metaphor.”
But two other Democrats in the state pushed back on the “60 Minutes” segment after it aired Sunday.
Jared Moskowitz, the head of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, called the report “absolute malarkey.” He said his organization and the Florida Department of Public Health had recommended the partnership with Publix.
“No one from the Governors office suggested Publix,” Moskowitz tweeted.
Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, another Democrat, said in a statement Monday that he felt “compelled” to speak out against the report.
“The reporting was not just based on bad information ― it was intentionally false,” Kerner said, adding that he and another county official had asked DeSantis to expand the partnership with Publix.
“We asked and he delivered,” Kerner wrote, adding that CBS News “had that information, and they left it out because it kneecaps their narrative.”
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay took issue with Kerner’s remarks, tweeting later Monday that the county had never asked for Publix to be the “sole” distributor of COVID-19 vaccines. (DeSantis reportedly made Publix the only vaccine distributor in the county for a brief period in January.)
“I’m not getting into pay to play argument,” McKinlay wrote, noting that she was concerned about the “lack of Publix” stores in her district — and, therefore, the lack of vaccine access.
Florida has had more than 2 million cases of COVID-19 and close to 34,000 deaths.
The entire “60 Minutes” report on the COVID-19 vaccine in Florida can be seen below.
Hayley Miller contributed to this report.
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