TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis had a made-for-TV moment: A 100-year-old World War II veteran getting a vaccine against the coronavirus. “An American hero,” the governor proclaimed Friday, would be the 1 millionth senior in his state to get a lifesaving shot in the arm.
As it turned out, the assertion was premature, and the Republican governor later walked back the claim, saying instead that the injection was symbolic of the state being on track to hit 1 million doses soon.
State officials acknowledged that it could take a few more days to reach the milestone. DeSantis’ own health department reported that, as of Thursday, fewer than 840,000 seniors had received the shot.
The governor, who has yet to make it official that he will seek reelection in 2022, has tried to cast himself in an aggressive posture against the coronavirus, touting that his state has vaccinated more seniors than any other state.
#ICYMI: This is how @GovRonDeSantis described it during his Key Largo news conference yesterday afternoon. #SoundOn Saying by midnight roughly 800K+ but adding that there is “about a 72 hour lag most of the time” in numbers reporting. ▶️ https://t.co/Kh9PlgUgYi pic.twitter.com/TKcynj6jCL— Christina Vazquez (@CBoomerVazquez) January 23, 2021
That messaging may have taken a hit when he appeared Friday on Fox News with World War II veteran Henry Sayler, who got a shot in the arm on national cable news.
“He’s a hundred years old, and he’s got the opportunity now to get the vaccine, so we’re excited,” the governor said during the live broadcast. “And we do believe this is the 1 millionth senior, which the reporting will bear out over the next couple of days.”
Reporters soon began asking about that figure because it did not appear to line up with reported vaccinations so far. DeSantis’ office sent out a news release clarifying that the shot was symbolic of nearing the goal of 1 million.
The news release Friday stated: “Today, Governor Ron DeSantis joined decorated World War II veteran and centenarian Henry Sayler to witness Sayler receiving his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. This moment commemorates Florida nearing 1 million seniors vaccinated in the state.”
During his week in review video that was sent Saturday, he used the updated phrasing, saying . . .” we are rapidly approaching one million vaccines just to seniors.”
(See Governor’s address below.)
DeSantis said later at a news conference on Friday that there’s a lag time in reporting the number of shots administered.
“We’re 800-some thousand that’s been reported as of midnight last night,” DeSantis said. “We really believe that in a few more days as the reports come in, we will actually cross 1 million 65 and up that will have gotten shots.”
The governor’s misstep came as Florida’s congressional Democrats, in a letter to DeSantis, expressed “serious concerns with the state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine,” even as DeSantis has barnstormed the state in recent days to announce the expansion of vaccination sites.
“It’s all about his PR and promotion of himself in stark contrast to what is happening in the state of Florida,” said state Sen. Gary Farmer, the top Democrat in his chamber. “He’s running around the state giving false hope to seniors and other people.”
The Democrats said more than 1 million unused vaccines were “on hold” in Florida, suggesting the state was not expeditiously administering them.
The letter chided the governor for confusing and misleading the public on vaccine distribution and availability, citing “a perception of unfairness and political motivation.” Democrats also faulted him and his administration for the delay in establishing a statewide system to schedule vaccination appointments.
State officials had no immediate comment on any of those assertions.
Earlier this week, the Florida Health Department expanded a new telephone appointment system meant to help counties better handle the demand for vaccines, but state officials pleaded with the public to be patient. The pilot program was rolled out in Miami-Dade County last week and then expanded to some of the state’s largest counties — Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Lee.
Some hospitals, county health departments and vaccination centers were plunged into chaos after DeSantis announced last month that he would open the vaccines to seniors 65 and older, prompting long lines, crashed websites and disappointment among thousands of Floridians.
During a legislative hearing earlier this month, the state’s director of emergency management, Jared Moskowitz, acknowledged the “chaotic” environment spawned by the release of two vaccines approved by the federal government.
DeSantis himself has urged Floridians to remain patient as the state awaits more vaccine supplies.
Florida has recorded more than 1.6 million COVID-19 infections and over 25,400 deaths. On Friday, health officials reported 277 new deaths, matching the Aug. 11 record for the highest single-day toll since the pandemic began.
But hospitalization figures have begun ticking downward. There were 6,911 people being treated for the disease in the state’s hospitals, according to an online census of hospitals — the first time that figure was below 7,000 for more than two weeks.
The current winter outbreak is the state’s third major wave of infections since last March, with the worst coming last summer. Nearly 10,000 people were hospitalized with coronavirus at the height of Florida’s summer wave.
On Saturday, the Governor’s office released a video with a written introduction that stated:
Today, Governor Ron DeSantis provided an update on Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution efforts, highlighting steps the state is taking to increase vaccinations and put Florida’s Seniors First.
Read the text of the address below:
“Hi, this is Governor Ron DeSantis.
Florida is putting Seniors First, and we continue to lead the nation in vaccines for those 65 and older, with 70% of our total vaccinations going to seniors. Not only was Florida the first state in the nation to vaccinate more than 500,000 seniors, but we are rapidly approaching one million vaccines just to seniors.
To highlight this milestone, this morning I joined Henry Sayler, a 100-year-old WWII veteran from St. Pete as he got his first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
A decorated fighter pilot, West Point graduate, former Florida state senator, and friend to presidents, baseball legends and astronauts, Henry’s life is the epitome of the American dream.
Because of Floridians like Henry, we remain laser focused on protecting those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and ensuring that every senior who wants a vaccine, can get a vaccine.
To complete this mission, we continue to open vaccination sites across the state and expand our partnership with Publix Super Markets.
On top of the 242 Publix locations in 18 counties providing vaccinations, we have opened an additional 70 state-supported vaccination sites – including at least one in every county.
And we continue to collaborate with places of worship and community centers to ensure the vaccine is available to diverse populations across our entire state.
Although federal supply remains limited, we will continue to utilize the amount of vaccine the state does have to ensure it reaches our 4.5 million seniors as quickly and efficiently as possible.
And as our state receives additional vaccines from the federal government, we will work to swiftly deploy it to Florida communities.
To all Floridians – we continue to make great progress, and there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
To our seniors – we will continue to put you first.
Thank you, and God Bless.”
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report.