Scott demands federal probe of Florida's vaccine distribution

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Sen. Rick Scott on Thursday called for a congressional investigation into what he called “vaccine distribution mismanagement,” following multiple reports that a West Palm Beach nursing home and assisted-living facility steered highly sought after vaccine shots to its board members and major donors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis already has been under fire for the bumpy rollout of vaccinations in Florida due to the Republican governor’s insistence that those 65 or older be among the first to get inoculated with one of the Covid-19 vaccines. The state has roughly 4.4 million older residents.

But Scott’s decision to wade into the controversy, even in a limited fashion, marks yet another instance in which the former Florida governor and his successor in Tallahassee have taken shots — some of them subtle, some of them not so subtle — at each other. Both Republicans are viewed as potential presidential candidates in 2024.

News organizations, including The Washington Post, have reported that MorseLife Health System offered vaccine doses to residents and staff of the facility as well as members of its board and wealthy donors. The news broke amid vivid images of senior citizens across the state waiting in long lines — sometimes overnight — to get a vaccine. Registration websites and phone lines have been jammed, prompting the DeSantis administration to scramble to expand access, including setting up distribution sites at a Miami Gardens football stadium and in Publix grocery stores in north Central Florida.

“It is absolutely disgusting and immoral that anyone would take vaccines intended for nursing home residents to distribute them to their friends,” Scott said in a statement. “This type of gross mismanagement will not be tolerated, and those responsible must be held accountable.”

DeSantis on Thursday brushed aside Scott’s call for an investigation and disclosed that he has already ordered Chief Inspector General Melinda Miguel to start an official probe into MorseLife Health System. A senior source with the governor’s office said the governor a day earlier had directed Miguel to begin working on the case.

“This is something we’re already investigating,” DeSantis said during a press conference in Vero Beach. “The nursing home and long-term care program is for residents and staff of long-term care facilities. That’s who it’s for.”

No one with MorseLife was immediately available for comment on Thursday.

DeSantis said that while the state wants to vaccinate those 65 and older, there are other options for them.

This is the latest round of sniping over the vaccine rollouts. While the state has been expanding access, the effort has been routinely criticized as chaotic and haphazard by those seeking shots and by Democrats.

More than 329,000 people in Florida have taken the Covid-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, including more than 65,000 people aged 65 and older, according to a state Department of Health report.

Florida received its first shipment of the vaccine on Dec. 14 from drug manufacturer Pfizer. The company shipped 178,000 doses to five of the state’s largest hospital chains. Under DeSantis’ vaccine distribution plan, the first doses went to frontline health care workers, and then the 138,000 residents in nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Vaccinating long-term care residents was mostly covered under a federal deal with CVS Pharmacy and Walgreens. The two drugstore chains received 60,000 doses in mid-December.

Frustrated with the pace of the federal deal, DeSantis set aside about 21,000 vaccine doses, and assembled teams that visited about 100 long-term care facilities. The West Palm Beach facility under scrutiny was under the federal vaccine distribution program, but no one has established blame.

DeSantis and Scott have had a contentious relationship dating back to the transition period when DeSantis was set to assume office. That relationship has only soured even more during the coronavirus pandemic. DeSantis was harshly critical of the state’s online unemployment website that crashed under a crush of applicants thrown out of work when Florida’s economy collapsed last spring. DeSantis ordered an investigation into why the Scott administration spent nearly $80 million on the system. That investigation is ongoing.

Scott, meanwhile, has questioned how states have spent their share of money from the CARES Act and demanded that officials hand over information on their spending. Florida has refused to cooperate with his request.

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