CBS News issued a statement Wednesday that defended a "60 Minutes" segment that aired Sunday, April 4, on the early vaccine rollout in Palm Beach County and pushed back against claims made in recent days by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.
The focus of the April 4 broadcast was: "Wealthy and well-connected residents cut the line, leaving other Floridians without a fair shot." It also described the state's decision to partner with Publix grocery stores to distribute the vaccine in their pharmacies and noted that Publix had donated $100,000 to the governor's political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.
Governor DeSantis has criticized "60 Minutes" for not airing his full response to questions on the donation at a March press conference and has claimed the state had a widespread effort for vaccine distribution that relied on multiple channels and targeted diverse communities.
In its statement, CBS News said, "Governor DeSantis' comments about this piece do not acknowledge that his senior constituents in the Glades did not have easy access to a Publix for the vaccine. The Glades is an underserved portion of Palm Beach County with a population of 31,000 that was the focus of the '60 Minutes' report."
The Glades is 44 miles west of the town of Palm Beach, also in Palm Beach County. About 90% of its residents are Black and Latino and many live below the poverty line.
Governor DeSantis has referenced Florida's vaccine distribution through the pharmacy chains CVS and Walgreens, saying they had it before Publix. But those doses were part of a federal program for nursing homes and long-term care facilities and were not available at stores or to the general public. State allocations of vaccines for the general public did not reach CVS pharmacies in Palm Beach County until late February; they reached Walgreens pharmacies there in mid-March.
"Publix was the only pharmacy in Palm Beach County to have the vaccine available for seniors in the general population of Palm Beach County in January," the CBS News statement said. "At this time, the mostly Black and Hispanic senior residents of the Glades would need to drive 25 miles if they had a car or take a long bus ride to the nearest Publix store, and that is if they could get a vaccine appointment online. Many people in the Glades do not own a computer or a smartphone."
The governor said in a press conference on April 7 that Publix did not have the exclusive distribution of vaccine in Palm Beach County. However, Palm Beach County Health Director Dr. Alina Alonso spoke publicly on January 26 about vaccine distribution in Palm Beach County: "Right now that's being controlled with the distribution to Publix, specifically in Palm Beach County. 'Cause this was a pilot that was started in three smaller counties and then the Governor moved it here to Palm Beach. So we're the only county where all the vaccine is going to Publix until he chooses other counties to do this. So right now, that vaccine, that Moderna, is going to Publix. That's not in our hands, of the health care district or the health department."
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents the Glades, said on April 5, in response to the governor: "I had one point — the complete failure by the governor to recognize that a decision to strictly utilize Publix would have a detrimental impact on Florida's rural communities."
Governor DeSantis has also said "60 Minutes" did not seek interviews with officials. CBS News disputed those claims in a statement Tuesday: "We requested and conducted interviews with dozens of sources and authorities involved. We requested an interview with Gov. Ron DeSantis; he declined. We spoke to State Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz twice, but he declined to be interviewed on camera for our story until well after our deadline. The idea we ignored their perspective is untrue. Counter to his recent statement, we also spoke on the record with Palm Beach County Mayor David Kerner."
At the press conference on March 22, "60 Minutes" correspondent Sharyn Alfonsi asked DeSantis about the arrangement with Publix and the political donation. The exchange lasted 2 minutes 32 seconds and the "60 Minutes" broadcast aired 54 seconds of his wide-ranging response that specifically answered the question asked. As "60 Minutes" reported, Governor DeSantis said during that answer that those questions posed a "fake narrative."
In the portion that aired, Alfonsi asked DeSantis: "Publix, as you know, donated $100,000 to your campaign. And then you rewarded them with the exclusive rights to distribute the vaccination in Palm Beach County."
DeSantis: "So, first of all, that – what you're saying is wrong."
Alfonsi: "How is that not pay to play?"
DeSantis: "That's a fake narrative. I met with the county mayor. I met with the administrator. I met with all the folks in Palm Beach County and I said, 'Here's some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites. We can give more to hospitals. We can do the Publix.' And they said, 'We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.'"
Alfonsi: "The criticism is that it's pay-to-play, governor."
DeSantis: "And it's wrong. It's wrong. It's a fake narrative. I just disabused you of the narrative. And you don't care about the facts. Because, obviously, I laid it out for you in a way that is irrefutable."
Alfonsi: "Isn't there the nearest Publix in the Glades 30 miles away?"
DeSantis: "You're wrong. You're wrong. Yes, Sir?"
Alfonsi: "That's actually a fact."
In the portion of the exchange that did not air on '60 Minutes," Governor DeSantis also describes the state's relationships with CVS and Walgreens, the decision to partner with Publix and Publix's early success at vaccinating seniors in Palm Beach.
Here is Governor DeSantis' full response:
DeSantis: "So, first of all, what you're saying is wrong. That's a fake narrative.
"So first of all ... the first pharmacies that had it were CVS and Walgreens. And they had a long-term care mission, so they were going to the long-term care facilities. They got vaccine in the middle of December, they started going to the long-term care facilities the third week of December to do LTCs. So that was their mission, that was very important and we trusted them to do that.
"As we got into January we wanted to expand the distribution points. So yes, you had the counties, you had some drive-thru sites, you had hospitals that were doing a lot. But we wanted to get it into communities more, so we reached out to other retail pharmacies — Publix, Walmart. Obviously CVS and Walgreens had to finish that mission, and we said we're going to use you as soon as you're done with that.
"For the Publix, they were the first one to raise their hands (and) say they were ready to go. And you know what? We did it on a trial basis. I had three counties. I actually showed up that weekend and talked to seniors across four different Publix — How was the experience? Is this good? Should you think this is a way to go? — and it was 100% positive. So we expanded it and then folks liked it.
"And I can tell you, if you look at a place like Palm Beach County, they were kind of struggling at first in terms of the senior numbers. I went, I met with the county mayor, I met with the administrator, I met with all the folks at Palm Beach County, and I said: Here's some of the options. We can do more drive-thru sites, we can give more to hospitals, we can do the Publix, we can do this. They calculated that 90% of their seniors live within a mile and a half of a Publix, and they said, We think that would be the easiest thing for our residents.
"So we did that, and what ended up happening was, you had 65 Publix in Palm Beach. Palm Beach is one of the biggest counties, one of the most elderly counties. We've done almost 75% of the seniors in Palm Beach, and the reason is because you have the strong retail footprint. So our way has been multi-faceted, it has worked — and we're also now very much expanding CVS and Walgreens now that they've completed the long-term care mission."
Alfonsi: "The criticism is that it's pay-to-play, governor."
DeSantis: "And it's wrong, it's wrong. It's a fake narrative. I just disabused you of the narrative and you don't care about the facts, because obviously I laid it out for you in a way that is irrefutable. And so it's clearly not."
Alfonsi: "Isn't the nearest Publix in the Glades 30 miles away? That's actually a fact."
DeSantis: "No, no, no. You're wrong, you're wrong, you're wrong."
Prior to the CBS News report, questions concerning donations made to Governor DeSantis' Political Action Committee by the supermarket chain Publix and its distribution of the vaccine had been raised by public officials in Florida. State Agricultural Commissioner Nikki Fried said it was "political favoritism" and "public corruption." And state Representative Omari Hardy said, "It doesn't look good. It doesn't pass the smell test."