MIAMI—On Christmas Eve, Dr. Jeff Lowenkron, a top doctor in The Villages, delivered an ominous holiday message to residents about the spread of coronavirus in Florida’s most politically infamous retirement community.
As the chief medical officer for The Villages Health, a health-care provider that operates six clinics in the sprawling central Florida development, Lowenkron has access to real-time stats about new cases and hospitalizations. According to his Dec. 24 weekly email newsletter, a copy of which was shared with The Daily Beast, Lowenkron revealed that the two main hospitals were treating 94 patients with COVID-19, of whom 19 were in the intensive care units.
“Local hospitalization numbers for COVID are at the highest they have been and are rising,” Lowenkron warned. “The Villages Health has seen an increase in positive test numbers in our test sites, as well as among our staff who are treating patients.”
But Lowenkron didn’t give a timetable for when Villagers could expect to get vaccinated. This even though Gov. Ron DeSantis had just days earlier used the Trumpian retiree stronghold as the backdrop for his big announcement that, unlike much of the rest of the country, Florida would be prioritizing senior citizens over essential workers.
“Those people who got the vaccine have put in long years of service and all of them are within the age group to qualify for it.”
— John Calandro, former president of the Sumter County Republican Executive Committee
On Tuesday, Shirley Schantz, a 73-year-old retired nurse, said she had not gotten any more information about The Villages Health’s vaccine rollout plan since Lowenkron’s mass email. “There seems to be no plan,” Schantz said. “If there is a plan, most of the residents don’t know about it.”
What is certain is that five Republican Villagers who have held elected office or positions within local GOP clubs were among those who received the vaccine last week when DeSantis held the press conference at the UF Health The Villages Hospital. The Republican Villagers’ starring roles ignited criticisms from their Democratic counterparts and the editorial board of the online newspaper The Villages-News, which was the first to report on the quintet’s Republican connections, as well as their ties to Mark Gary Morse.
The president of The Villages development company, Morse and his family have a long history as Republican Party rainmakers, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Morse’s executive assistant said her boss was out of the office until next week and unavailable for comment, and attempts to reach the local Republicans who got early vaccines were unsuccessful.
Critics accused DeSantis of a shameless, GOP-first photo-op to make him look good amid all the bad press he’s been getting for his uber-libertarian intransigence regarding mask mandates, business lockdowns, and social distancing. In the following days, DeSantis’ vaccine rollout has been roundly slammed by infectious disease experts, and turned into a logistical mess for the county offices of the state health department.
But it was the appearance of naked partisanship—hordes of GOP voters in The Villages powered Republicans into statewide office once again in November—that marked a fresh fiasco in a state where Gov. DeSantis can’t seem to get anything right on COVID.
“One of the principles of effective communication is being fully transparent,” said Dr. Marissa Levine, a University of South Florida infectious disease professor. “By him giving the appearance that this is politically driven, his communication has not been effective. That undermines the whole framework.”
DeSantis should base his decision making on strong data and an ethical framework given the demand for the COVID-19 vaccine is currently outpacing the supply, Levine added. “Was it just him who made the decision or was it informed through a process that ensures equity?” she asked. “We really haven’t heard that.”
The governor’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
John Calandro, former president of the Sumter County Republican Executive Committee, dismissed the criticisms. He noted the five Republican Villagers were between their late sixties and mid-eighties.
“Those people who got the vaccine have put in long years of service and all of them are within the age group to qualify for it,” Calandro told The Daily Beast. “I don’t know how they were selected. I think if they would have picked four [Villagers] off the street, people would have complained. I am just happy we are going to be a target community [to get the vaccine].”
Suffice it to say his Democratic neighbors feel rather differently. “Even in the time of the coronavirus, it all depends on who you know,” Marsha Shearer, a director for The Villages Democratic Club, told The Daily Beast. “I think it comes down to who votes Republican among the old people who live in The Villages.”
Instead of pandering to elderly folks, DeSantis should have prioritized giving the vaccine to essential workers such as teachers, teachers’ aides, grocery store clerks, and bus drivers, Shearer said. It’s a strategy that is backed by top infectious disease experts and that DeSantis has scoffed at.
““I finally got in touch with someone and they informed me it was now first-come, first-serve starting on New Year’s Day…. It’s scary.””
— Edward Kippel
“As we get into the general community, the vaccines are going to be targeted where the risk is the greatest, and that is in our elderly population,” DeSantis said at last week’s presser. “We are not going to put young healthy workers ahead of our vulnerable elderly population.”
Bernard Ashby, a Miami-based cardiologist who is the Florida state lead for the Committee to Protect Medicare, said DeSantis showing off five retiree Republican Villagers getting inoculated fits a consistent pattern by Florida’s top elected official of putting politics over people. “It is all about optics and not about the substance,” Ashby said. “He’s given seniors the impression that the cavalry is on its way to the rescue, and giving people a false sense of hope.”
Indeed, since DeSantis proclaimed seniors were his next vaccination priority, hospitals and county health departments providing vaccinations for 65-and-over Floridians have been inundated with an onslaught of elderly people hoping to land their first dose. It’s a scenario that foreshadows a long delay given the limited run of vaccinations being distributed across the state and the country.
In Lee County, hundreds of senior citizens camped out in front of immunization sites hours before the places opened to jab them on a first-come, first-served basis.
In Lake County, which borders Sumter and includes a small portion of The Villages, the Health Department initially announced it would offer vaccinations to senior citizens later this week at two locations. The Dec. 29 press release instructs people to call and register for an appointment. But the following day, the Lake Health Department issued another directive informing local elderly folks that the vaccinations would be given on a first-come, first-serve basis beginning on Jan. 1 and that appointments will not be accepted.
The divergent instructions left Edward Kippel, a 78-year-old who said he had coronary artery disease, frustrated. The retiree, who along with his wife live in Lake’s portion of The Villages, said he kept getting a busy signal and messages that the health department’s phone line was not in service for several hours on Tuesday.
“I finally got in touch with someone and they informed me it was now first-come, first-serve starting on New Year’s Day,” Kippel told The Daily Beast. “I saw on TV people waiting in line in other parts of Florida. Some weren’t wearing masks. It’s scary.”
A spokesperson for the Lake County Health Department did not respond to an email requesting comment.
To be sure, the troubles with Florida’s vaccine rollout mirrors those of other states, argued Dr. William Haseltine, chairman of the US-China Health Summit and a world-renowned infectious disease expert. Haseltine said the Trump administration shoulders some of the blame. “States need financial and material support from the federal government,” he explained. “The federal government did not work with states on detailed plans on how they would distribute the vaccines.”
Still, DeSantis has exacerbated the problem in Florida, Haseltine said. “The governor has handled this crisis as bad as anybody could,” he added.
Lowenkron, the Villages doctor, did not respond to phone messages seeking comment. But he assured email recipients that his employer, in conjunction with the Sumter County Health Department and the two UF Health hospitals in the area, was working on a plan that would entail an online sign-up process and a drive-through vaccination with space for a 15-minute observation after the inoculation.
However, the Sumter County Health Department is still prioritizing vaccinations for doctors, nurses, nursing home staffers ,and old people living in long-term care facilities, according to biological scientist and spokeswoman Megan McCarthy. Those groups have been prioritized almost universally nationwide in the earliest wave of vaccinations; it’s in the second tranche after them that states like Florida and Texas are diverging by putting all seniors before workers.
A majority of The Villages is located in Sumter County, where a total of 221 vaccinations had been administered, according to the Florida Health Department’s Dec. 29 vaccination report. Statewide, 175,465 Floridians had gotten the vaccine, including 35,456 people 65 and over.
On Wednesday, the Sumter County Health Department said it received 2,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine, according to a press release. The first people to get inoculated from the new batch will be medical personnel working a mass vaccination event at a future undetermined date, as well as health-care workers currently caring for COVID-19 patients on a daily basis. The goal is to have a sizable vaccination force ready to administer the immunization shots, the press release states.
“Following the initial distributions to high-risk frontline health-care workers and long-term care facility staff and residents, the health department will work to provide vaccines to additional priority groups,” McCarthy said in an email statement.
She added, “Updates on how residents will be able to receive the vaccine will be announced as soon as those plans become available.”
On Wednesday afternoon, a Sumter Health Department email obtained by The Daily Beast indicated people could begin calling a phone number on Jan. 4 to schedule a future appointment to obtain the vaccine.
Meanwhile, in Lake County, Kippel’s frustration at the prospect of jumping over other elderly folks to get it was palpable.
As he put it, “I want the vaccine, but I am not sure I want to expose myself to the virus while waiting in line to get it.”