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How the wealthy cut the line during Florida's frenzied vaccine rollout

Inside Florida's chaotic vaccine rollout
Inside Florida's chaotic vaccine rollout 13:28

This past week, President Biden said 90% of U.S. adults will be eligible for the COVID vaccine by April 19 and will be able to get their shots within five miles of their home. That will be welcome news to many in Florida.

For three months, we've been reporting around Palm Beach County, the third-largest in the state. It's home to old-monied millionaires but also some of the poorest day laborers and farm workers in America.

During those months, we watched Florida's vaccine rollout deteriorate into a virtual free for all and watched as some wealthy and well-connected residents cut the line, leaving other Floridians without a fair shot.

This is the town of Palm Beach. Privacy hedges hide beachfront mansions and a healthy share of billionaires. More than 80% of the town's seniors have been vaccinated. Bram Majtlis was one of the first.

Bram Majtlis: I was the lucky one that had my phone in my hands, pushed the link to make the appointment, and had an appointment.

Bram Majtlis

On January 5, Majtlis, a retired businessman, got his first shot at a fire station just a block from his home. A few days earlier, the town had been given a thousand doses from the state. The vaccine was in short supply. Residents were thrilled. But neighboring towns were upset that Palm Beach was the only town in all of palm beach county to get the life-saving shots for their seniors.

Bram Majtlis: I don't think that they got it for any other reason than being prepared.

Sharyn Alfonsi: To be prepared you have to have resources. And so I think a lot of people look at Palm Beach and say, "Well, they got the vaccine because they're a rich community."

Bram Majtlis: I really think it has nothing to do with the resources. In this particular case. Absolutely not.  

The Palm Beach fire chief said they spent months training staff and setting up locations to administer the vaccine quickly.  But a bridge away in West Palm Beach, they say they were just as prepared.

Sharyn Alfonsi: You were ready in West Palm Beach for the vaccine?

Keith James: Absolutely. And I even put my signature on the letter to let the governor and the county know that we were ready, willing and able.

Keith James is the mayor of West Palm Beach, which is not on the beach at all, but the intercoastal waterway. The median income in West Palm Beach is about $28,000 a year, compared to $70,000 in the town of Palm Beach.    

James told us after he and other mayors complained about the town of Palm Beach getting the 1,000 doses, the county's health director took the blame, calling it a "miscommunication."

Keith James: Listen, the county health director has fallen on the sword on that and said it was her bad. Her organization's bad. They made a mistake. But isn't it funny that these mistakes only happen in communities that have that kind of wealth? They didn't make a mistake and send a thousand doses to the poorest communities in our county?

Keith James

Mayor James is among a number of community leaders who say the state's vaccination rollout has favored the wealthy. 

Florida's rollout started pretty typically. The first doses were given to health care workers and nursing home residents in early December.

But then a few weeks later, Governor Ron DeSantis, breaking from CDC guidelines, announced he would not vaccinate teachers and essential workers next but instead put "seniors first," making anyone 65 or over eligible for the vaccine. The first in the country to do that. DeSantis said seniors were at highest risk.

Ron DeSantis at press conference: They will have priority over ordinary workers who are under 65. And I think that that's the appropriate way to do.

Florida's four and a half million seniors started competing against each other for the vaccine.  

In the rush, public health department phone lines failed and computer sites crashed.

Kara Macsuga, a teacher, tried to increase the odds of getting her mom an appointment. 

Kara Macsuga: So I have a school-issued Chromebook. I have my own personal laptop. I have my husband's iPad. I have my ancient iPad. And all four of those screens. It's very deflating, I missed it again today.

Kara Macsuga and her mother try to obtain a COVID vaccination appointment

In some places, seniors waited 17 hours for a shot, but not everyone was so patient.  Almost immediately, the line jumping started.

Keith James: It was incredibly frustrating.

In West Palm Beach, Mayor James says he was still trying to secure vaccines for his town's firefighters when he learned that at a nursing home in town, some board members and their wealthy pals got vaccinated. Even though those doses were only supposed to be given to elderly residents and staff.

Then, the private jets started arriving.

Hollywood moguls, New York socialites and tourists from overseas were getting vaccinated in Florida, posting on social media and sparking outrage. Early on, there were no residency requirements to get vaccinated in the state.

Keith James: People were saying, "Listen, this is a resource and I know it's out there and I'm gonna use whatever leverage I have to get that resource." There were no rules.

Sharyn Alfonsi: It sounds like "The Hunger Games."

Keith James: That's a pretty good way of putting it. And those who had the fiscal resources were gonna use them in whatever way they could to get this vaccine.

By February 1, casualties of the chaotic rollout became clear.

State data revealed of the more than 160,000 residents in Palm Beach County who'd been vaccinated, only 2% were Black and 3% Hispanic. Even though minorities make up almost half the county. State representative Omari Hardy, a Democrat, says it's all about access.

Omari Hardy: At the beginning of this pandemic Black people, Hispanics, people of color, we bore the full force of this pandemic. Overrepresented in the hospitalizations. Overrepresented in the deaths. And now on the back end of the pandemic we're bearing the full force of it as well. Because we don't have the same access to the vaccine.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Some people have said that the minority community is distrusting of the vaccine and doesn't want the vaccine. What do you think of that narrative?

Omari Hardy: That's an excuse for people who don't want to do the work required to ensure that the distribution of this vaccine is equitable. 

Omari Hardy

And nowhere was that more challenging than here. This is the Glades. It's 44 miles west of the town of Palm Beach, also in Palm Beach County. 31,000 people call the Glades "home."

Rivers of sugar cane line the roads and the air is thick with the smell of molasses.  

About 90% of residents are Black and Latino. Many live below the poverty line. By March, 11 weeks into the rollout, more than half the seniors in the Glades had still not been vaccinated.

For months, Tammy Jackson-Moore, a community organizer, has been going door to door trying to fix that. We were with her when we met 91-year-old Annie-Pearl Cornelius on her porch.

Annie-Pearl Cornelius

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you drive?

Annie-Pearl Cornelius: No, ma'am.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Do you have a computer?

Annie-Pearl Cornelius: No, ma'am.

Annie-Pearl told us she wanted to get the vaccine for months, but couldn't make an appointment. 

Tammy Jackson-Moore: A lot of people still have flip phones. So there were a lot of challenges in our community as it relates to people trying to make appointments for vaccinations.

But the biggest challenge for residents of the Glades wasn't just making appointments, it was getting to them.

That's because back in January, the governor made another game-changing move. He announced he was partnering with Publix grocery stores across the state to distribute the vaccine in their pharmacies. 

But as part of the program in Palm Beach County, most seniors could no longer get vaccine appointments though their public health departments. They had to go to Publix instead.

Tammy Jackson-Moore

Tammy Jackson-Moore: I was shocked because I know that we don't have a Publix in our community. And then I got angry, because I personally knew three people that had passed from COVID. And I knew that this was not going to be good for this community. 

Omari Hardy: Belle Glade is one of the poorest communities, not just in Palm Beach County, but in the state of Florida. So you have lots of folks who don't have cars. 

Sharyn Alfonsi: How far would someone from Belle Glade have to go to get to a Publix?

Omari Hardy: The nearest Publix to Belle Glade is about 25 miles.

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's pretty significant if you don't drive.

You have to catch two buses to get to the nearest Publix from the Glades. It's 34 stops. More than two hours round trip. A daunting task in the middle of a pandemic, especially if you're elderly.

So why did the governor choose Publix?

Campaign finance reports obtained by 60 Minutes show that weeks before the governor's announcement, Publix donated $100,000 to his political action committee, Friends of Ron DeSantis.  

Julie Jenkins Fancelli, heiress to the Publix fortune, has given $55,000 to the governor's PAC in the past. And in November, Fancelli's brother-in-law, Hoyt R. Barnett, a retired Publix executive, donated $25,000. 

Publix did not respond to our request for comment about the donations. 

Governor DeSantis is up for re-election next year.  

Sharyn Alfonsi: I imagine Governor DeSantis's office would say, "Look, we privatized the rollout because it's more efficient and it works better." 

Omari Hardy: It hasn't worked better for people of color. Before, I could call the public health director. She would answer my calls. But now if I want to get my constituents information about how to get this vaccine I have to call a lobbyist from Publix? That makes no sense. They're not accountable to the public.

Distributing vaccines is lucrative. Under federal guidelines, Publix, like any other private company, can charge medicare $40 a shot to administer the vaccine. 

Ron DeSantis

We wanted to ask Governor DeSantis about the deal. But he declined our requests for an interview. We caught up with him south of Orlando.

Sharyn Alfonsi: 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.

Ron DeSantis: So, first of all, that-- what you're saying is wrong. That's--

Sharyn Alfonsi: How is that not pay to play?

Ron DeSantis: --that-- 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."

But Melissa McKinlay, the county commissioner in the Glades, told us the governor never met with her about the Publix deal.

Sharyn Alfonsi: The criticism is that it's pay-to-play, governor.

Ron 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.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Well, I-- I was just talk--

Ron DeSantis: And, so, it's clearly not.

Sharyn Alfonsi: Isn't there the nearest Publix --

Ron DeSantis: No, no, no. You're wrong.

Sharyn Alfonsi: --30 miles away.

Ron DeSantis: You're wrong. You're wrong. Yes, sir?

Sharyn Alfonsi: That's actually a fact.

A federal complaint raises other questions about the governor's vaccine distribution decisions and alleges Governor DeSantis was discriminating when he hand-picked communities for pop-up sites across the state.

One of those communities was Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County just south of Tampa. In February, the governor announced he was giving 3,000 doses to the community.

Ron DeSantis: We saw a need, we want to get the numbers up for seniors.

But what the governor didn't mention was that Lakewood Ranch developer Pat Neal has donated $135,000 to the Friends of Ron DeSantis PAC.  

Or that only residents from two ZIP codes would be allowed to get the shots and those two ZIP codes have some of highest income levels and lowest COVID infection rates in the county.    

When the governor was questioned about it, he threatened to take all the vaccine back.

Ron DeSantis: I mean if Manatee County doesn't like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it. 

Annie-Pearl Cornelius got her first shot last month at a weekly vaccination site the state set up in the Glades. The local CVS and Walgreens have been given vaccine, too. There is no shortage of takers.

State Democratic leaders are calling for the Justice Department to investigate whether Governor DeSantis was rewarding high-dollar donors with special access to the vaccine. 

Omari Hardy: This is a once-in-a-century pandemic. Someone shouldn't have a better chance to survive because they have money or because they can write a check to someone, or because they have access to powerful people.

A spokesperson for Publix Super Markets provided the following statement to 60 Minutes:

"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. We are proud of our pharmacy associates for administering more than 1.5 million doses of vaccine to date and for joining other retailers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia to do our part to help our communities emerge from the pandemic."

Produced by Oriana Zill de Granados. Associate producer, Emily Gordon. Broadcast associate, Elizabeth Germino. Edited by Craig Crawford.

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