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Trump's bungled vaccine rollout is forcing governors to get creative — and political

"Just as they did during the early days of the pandemic, the Trump administration left the distribution of the vaccines to the states, and the result is this patchwork approach we see from state to state," said one public policy expert.
Image: Jose "Pepe" Diaz, Ron DeSantis, Jeanette Nunez, Esteban "Steve" Bovo
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks during a news conference along with Jose "Pepe" Diaz, left, chairman of the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners; Lt. Gov. Jeanette Nunez, second from left; and Commissioner Esteban "Steve" Bovo, right, at the Bay of Pigs Museum and Library in Miami on Monday.Wilfredo Lee / AP file

Florida is famous for its oranges, but Gov. Ron DeSantis of late has been busy turning his lemon of a Covid-19 vaccine distribution plan into lemonade.

The first few weeks of the rollout of vaccinations in December were chaotic across the country after the Trump administration in essence left it up to governors to figure out how to get needles into the arms of as many people as possible.

DeSantis was harshly criticized after he chose to ignore federal guidelines and give priority to senior citizens over essential workers. County phone banks were deluged with calls, computer systems crashed, and long lines of elderly people waited overnight outside vaccination centers for first-come, first-served shots.

DeSantis was in Miami this month when a trio of Cuban exiles who took part in the failed Bay of Pigs invasion 60 years ago got their first shots, and he used the occasion to rail against communism. And a few days before that, DeSantis showed up at a Jewish center north of Miami, where he called Holocaust survivors who got their Covid-19 shots "inspirations for so many people."

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis asks Vera Leip, 88, how she feels after nurse Christine Philips administered a Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine dose at John Knox Village in Pompano Beach on Dec. 16.Marta Lavandier / AP file

That a savvy politician like DeSantis would use the vaccine for political gain with two key Florida voting blocs is no surprise, said Michael McDonald, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida. "That's what politicians do," he said.

But the fact that it took more than a month before DeSantis was able to tout the distribution of vaccine doses speaks to how little help governors got from the federal government early in the rollout, experts said.

"Just as they did during the early days of the pandemic, the Trump administration left the distribution of the vaccines to the states, and the result is this patchwork approach we see from state to state," said Asher Hildebrand, a public policy professor at Duke University and former chief of staff for Rep. David Price, D-N.C. "We shouldn't let the governors off the hook, but managing a massive distribution effort that balances efficiency with equity is very hard to do."

Aubrey Jewett, an associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said DeSantis' decision to vaccinate seniors and his recent appearances with Cuban and Jewish voters were made with an eye on the election next year, when he hopes to win a second term.

"Second, he is trying to garner some positive publicity for his administration in the fight against Covid-19 to counteract some of the criticism he has faced for not taking the health risk more seriously and overseeing a chaotic system where many seniors have faced difficulties in getting a vaccine," Jewett said.

The DeSantis administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment about vaccination efforts.

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As of Tuesday, Florida had administered 2.6 million doses of vaccine, a rate of 12,141 per 100,000 people, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's vaccine tracker. By contrast, West Virginia has the country's top coronavirus vaccination rate, at 18,045 per 100,000 people.

Philip J. Palin, one of the world's top experts on getting supplies to survivors of catastrophes, said West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican who won office as a Democrat and then switched back to the GOP, used resources already available in the state to vaccinate more residents.

"Some states have been much better than others at exploiting their pre-existing assets," said Palin, a veteran government consultant and author of "Out of the Whirlwind: Supply and Demand After Hurricane Maria."

West Virginia has a highly vulnerable but much smaller population than Florida, and it has been able to tap its "community pharmacies and pre-existing black lung programs" to get the shots out, Palin said.

In Washington, Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee has also been tapping local resources, although in this case the resources are Microsoft and Starbucks, which are helping with logistics and technology.

"We are removing as many impediments as possible to Washingtonians' getting vaccinated. We are going to deliver every dose that comes into our state," Inslee said. "We will still be dependent on the federal government for doses, but we are doing everything we can once it gets here."

Hildebrand said reaching out to Starbucks and Microsoft "shows ingenuity and creative utilization of available resources."

"But it's also an indictment of the federal government's response that governors have to lean on the private sector to get this done," he said.

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States like West Virginia, Connecticut, New Mexico and Alaska got off to good starts administering vaccine doses, while states like Iowa and Missouri have lagged, Hildebrand said.

"But the reasons for that go beyond leadership and what works in West Virginia won't necessarily work in New York or Florida," he said by email.

None of this is happening in a vacuum, Hildebrand said. Every governor must operate within the specific and sometimes cumbersome laws of their states. And governors who have managed previous crises are in better positions to respond effectively to this one.

Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper of North Carolina "spent most of this first term responding to hurricanes, which helped him manage the current crisis calmly and competently," Hildebrand said.

Vaccine distribution problems have also dented the reputations of governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, a popular Republican in an overwhelmingly Democratic state who prides himself on being an adept manager — and who has gotten bipartisan praise for his pandemic response.

Among other things, Baker was slow to realize that seniors were having trouble navigating the state's website, and he belatedly opened a 500-person call center to help them make vaccination appointments, The Boston Globe reported.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats in states hit hard by the pandemic, have also been bedeviled by distribution issues. At one point, Cuomo floated the idea of buying vaccine doses directly from Pfizer after he complained that the Trump administration had failed to deliver enough doses to his state.

"It's easy to beat up on Gov. Cuomo or Gov. Newsom for insisting on prioritizing first responders and then having the backtrack to include other groups after realizing that sticking to strict categories was slowing the distribution down," Hildebrand said. "But in both cases the lessons learned speak to the challenges of managing an effort of this scale (and, in particular, the difficulty of balancing efficient distribution with equitable distribution)."