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'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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
DeSantis said later at a news conference 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."
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.
Associated Press writers Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami and Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee, Florida, contributed to this report. Follow Bobby Caina Calvan on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BobbyCalvan.