WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A top Palm Beach County official said she's "disgusted" by Gov. Ron DeSantis' plan to allow Publix pharmacies to be the primary source of distributing the COVID-19 vaccine throughout the county.
"Shame on him for thinking that that was appropriate for our county," Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said at Tuesday's commission meeting.
According to Palm Beach County health director Dr. Alina Alonso, the county is "very, very low on vaccine," and a majority of the doses are going to 67 Publix pharmacies as part of a pilot program with the state.
"We're the only county where all this vaccine is going to Publix, until [DeSantis] chooses other counties to do this," Alonso said. "Right now, that vaccine, Moderna, is going to Publix. That's not in our hands."
The Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County will receive enough vaccine to finish first doses through Feb. 5. After that, Alonso said the health department will only receive vaccine for second doses.
"I'm absolutely disgusted that the governor of this state has 100% taken the ability to vaccinate our residents in Palm Beach County out of the hands of our public health officials and medical officials, and given that authority to a corporate entity," McKinlay said.
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The commissioner added there are large pockets throughout Palm Beach County where residents don't live in close proximity to Publix, or a Publix that has a pharmacy.
"Yet [DeSantis] has decided that the best people to distribute the vaccine and to make it available to the residents in our county is a private corporation and not the health officials in this county," McKinlay said. "I commend Publix and their willingness to be our partner, but they should not be the ones in charge."
McKinlay asked fellow county commissioners to agree to send a letter DeSantis, expressing their concerns that Publix is the main distributor of the vaccine in Palm Beach County.
The Publix vaccine appointment system has come under fire recently, with registration slots filling up with seconds of going online, leaving many residents frustrated and unable to get vaccinated.
"We're setting ourselves up for a really difficult time in helping people get this done," said Commissioner Gregg Weiss. "Instead of making it as easy as possible, we've created, I think, a system that creates potentially more barriers for a lot of people."
That criticism came shortly after DeSantis announced on Tuesday that 11 Publix pharmacies in St. Lucie County and eight in Indian River County will offer the COVID-19 vaccine later this week.
Speaking in Vero Beach, DeSantis said he met with Mayor Dave Kerner and other county officials weeks ago before rolling out the Publix pilot program in Palm Beach County.
"We told them about Publix. They were like, yeah, bring that here. We think that will be good, cause they have so many seniors that live so close to Publix," DeSantis said.
The governor claimed that 90% of senior citizens in Palm Beach County live within a mile-and-a-half of at least one Publix.
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Dr. Alonso admitted on Tuesday that Palm Beach County is falling behind on distributing the COVID-19 vaccine.
The health director said the county was hoping to be in Phase Two of its vaccination plan by now, but unfortunately, it's in "no way ready."
During Phase Two, which is now expected to begin in February or March, vaccinations will open up to more groups and populations. Phase Two will include mass vaccination centers, clinics, mobile units, pop-up sites, and community points of distribution.
"We are ready to do mass vaccination centers, we're read to do PODS, we're ready to do mobile units, we're ready to do strike teams, but we need vaccine. And that is out of our control," Alonso said. "Everybody has to understand, we can't give what we don't have."
Phase Three, in which the general population as a whole can get vaccinated, likely won't happen until April at the earliest.
People 65 and older, health care workers with direct patient contact, long-term care facility residents and staff, and people deemed to be "extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 by hospital providers" are eligible to receive the vaccine in Palm Beach County.
Currently, the county health department is not accepting any new appointments for people who wish to receive the vaccine.
"At this time, we are only scheduling vaccination appointments for the individuals already on the Palm Beach County Department of Health waiting list," a statement on the county's website reads. "As more vaccines become available, we will provide public information about scheduling your appointment."
According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, 130,027 people have received the COVID-19 vaccine in Palm Beach County.