Not long after Florida began its rollout of the coronavirus vaccines, Black leaders and others began raising alarms that the first doses were finding their way into the arms of mostly white senior citizens who supported Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, while their hard-hit communities were left in the cold.
Now some numbers appear to support those suspicions.
Of the 34 states that shared vaccination data by race and ethnicity, Florida ranks near the bottom in the rate at which Black residents have been inoculated even as the community has suffered a disproportionate share of Covid-19 deaths, concluded Aubrey Jewett, a political science professor at the University of Central Florida.
Using the most recent data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, Jewett noted that while Blacks make up about 15 percent of the state's population and account for 16 percent of the Covid-19 deaths, the community has received just 6 percent of the shots so far.
"For vaccination equity for blacks, Florida ranks quite badly at 30th out of 34," Jewett said in an email.
Latinos in Florida have also been vaccinated more slowly, Jewett found. While they account for 27 percent of the population and 24 percent of deaths, they have gotten just 16 percent of the vaccinations, Jewett calculated.
"Some of the inequality for vaccines is simply because of the age disparity" in Florida's population, Jewett said. "A much higher percentage of whites are over the age of 65 compared to black and Hispanics whose population skews younger."
Still, Jewett said, "I think for a first look this analysis holds up and is defensible."
It also reflects the findings of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported Monday that Blacks and Hispanics don't appear to be getting vaccinated nationwide at the same rate as white people.
Preliminary data from the CDC, culled from about half of the 12.9 million people vaccinated in the U.S. from Dec. 14 to Jan. 14, suggest that the Blacks and Hispanics in the first groups to get shots — health care workers and long-term nursing home residents — got a smaller share of the doses.
DeSantis, who did not respond to a request for comment about the apparent disparities in vaccination rates, vowed last week to enlist the help of Black churches to vaccinate more elderly African Americans.
"Churches that want to be involved in this program, we will absolutely work with them" DeSantis said. "We can get that teed up pretty quickly."
That has done little to erase the perception that DeSantis is playing politics with vaccine distribution and that people of color are being sidelined.
"I feel that Gov. DeSantis is treating communities of color just as an afterthought," said state Rep. Omari Hardy, a Democrat whose mostly minority district includes parts of West Palm Beach and Delray Beach.
Nor, Hardy said, is he surprised by Jewett's findings or the CDC results. He said the vaccine distribution system seems to be designed to make it harder for elderly Black people to get inoculated.
"I know lots of elderly people in my community who are struggling to get vaccinated," Hardy said. "After we make an uproar, the governor throws a few vaccines at us at a church and then pats himself on the back. That's not right."
Charlotte County Democratic Party Chair Teresa Jenkins agreed.
"That's disgraceful," Jenkins said when told of Jewett's findings. "It certainly does confirm what we've maintained to be true — that the vaccines are going first to white-dominated areas."
Florida's numbers "don't lie," said former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, co-chair of the New York COVID Vaccine Task Force for Vaccine Equity and Education.
"When I compare vaccine rollout numbers between New York and Florida what I see is a lack of understanding and attention to communities that needed the most attention," Turner said in an emailed response to several questions. "Local leaders have been very clear that the vaccine rollout in Florida has not served Black, Brown and poor communities well at all."
The CDC recommendations prioritized health care workers and long-term nursing home residents first, followed by front-line workers, like police, firefighters and teachers, and people ages 75 and older not living in retirement homes.
Senior citizens ages 65 to 74 are in the third group, according to the CDC guidelines.
In Florida, however, DeSantis did not follow the CDC recommendations; he launched a "seniors first strategy" to vaccinate members of one of the state's most potent voting blocs first.
Nearly half of Florida's residents 65 and older have received at least one shot of a vaccine, the South Florida Sun Sentinel reported Sunday. But Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in that group, the data show.
"A lot of our residents, they're just not being accounted for," Shirley Erazo, president and CEO of the Delray Beach Housing Authority, which serves a mostly minority, low-income population, told NBC affiliate WPTV of West Palm Beach.
DeSantis has set up at least 19 pop-up vaccine centers across Florida, but the ones that have drawn the most attention and criticism are the ones that went up with little or no warning to local officials in planned communities where elderly Republican residents predominate.
South of Tampa in Manatee County, the sheriff, acting on a complaint from the American Civil Liberties Union, is investigating whether a county commissioner violated any laws by helping DeSantis set up a pop-up site in a community that was built by a political supporter — who then got her name and that of the developer on the vaccination list.
Meanwhile, Florida's agriculture commissioner, Nikki Fried, has asked for a congressional investigation into "alleged political favoritism"in the distribution of the vaccines. And U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist has asked the Justice Department to investigate reports that DeSantis set up vaccination sites "in select locations to benefit political allies and donors, over the needs of higher risk community and existing county waitlists."
Fried and Crist are Democrats who are reported to be considering running next year against DeSantis, a staunch ally of former President Donald Trump who even before the vaccine rollout was harshly criticized for having been slow to respond to the pandemic.
"Florida got it right, and the lockdown states got it wrong," DeSantis insisted over the weekend at the opening of the Conservative Political Action Committee in Orlando. "We look around in other parts of our country, and in far too many places, we see schools closed, businesses shuttered and lives destroyed. And while so many governors over the last year had kept locking people down, Florida lifted people up."
As of Monday, Florida had reported nearly 2 million confirmed cases of Covid-19, along with more than 31,000 deaths, according to the latest NBC News data. The majority of infections and deaths were reported after DeSantis declared in April that "we haven't seen an explosion in new cases" and began reopening the state over the objections of most health experts.
Jewett, a longtime observer of Florida politics, said in an email that if he were to give DeSantis a grade for his handling of the pandemic and the vaccine rollout, it would be a C.
"For many Republicans and conservatives, they would give DeSantis an 'A' based on the same data," he said. "From their perspective health outcomes were average (and better than many states that had severe lockdowns) and he did it without mask mandates and allowed businesses to reopen and operate and got school reopened."
Democrats and liberals, however, would give DeSantis an F "based on the same data."
"From their perspective health outcomes could have been much better if DeSantis had issued more regulations (or at least used his pull to encourage people to wear masks etc.) and DeSantis does not seem to care about equity at all and the results largely reflect this," Jewett said.