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First COVID-19 vaccines arrive in Florida as ‘buried’ coronavirus report questions state response

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, right, watches as Ramon Docobo, Asst. Director of the Pharmacy at Tampa General Hospital, removes the COVID-19 vaccine from boxes Monday, Dec. 14, 2020, in Tampa, Fla. Chris O'Meara / AP

Gov. Ron DeSantis was at Tampa General Hospital (TBH) Monday as a 31-year-old emergency room nurse became one of the first Floridians to be inoculated with Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine.

“Today, we will have shots going in arms,” DeSantis said, noting he “had the privilege” to sign the Federal Express delivery receipt when 20,000 doses arrived Monday on TBH’s landing dock.

“We’ll have health care workers getting vaccinated much faster than anyone could have anticipated six months ago. God bless America,” the governor said.

TBH was one of five Florida hospitals to receive 100,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine Monday and Tuesday. By week’s end, the state’s Department of Health (DOH), CVS and Walgreens will have 80,000 doses for distribution in nursing homes and long-term care centers.

DeSantis departed TBH without responding to questions about a White House Coronavirus Task Force report his office refused to publicly release that contradicts his pandemic response as “science-based.”

The Dec. 6 White House Coronavirus Task Force report urges Florida to take “immediate and strict action” in addressing its COVID-19 outbreak, recommendations the Center for Public Integrity say were buried by DeSantis.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. Dr. Deborah Birx is its response coordinator.

The task force’s weekly reports are sent to governors and routinely publicly posted except, apparently, in Florida, according to the Center for Public Integrity, which obtained and published the report Saturday after the Governor’s Office refused to release it to the media.

In the report, the task force defines Florida as “a red zone” and declares its strategies must change, “including the implementation of key state and local policies with an additional focus on uniform behavioral change,” such as requiring face masks, physical distancing, hand washing, as well as “preventing gatherings outside of households and more aggressive testing.”

The report calls for significant reductions in capacity limits for closed-indoor gathering spaces, like bars and restaurants.

DeSantis has dismissed such strategies as being espoused by “flat-earthers,” preempting local governments’ from enforcing pandemic-induced restrictions on businesses and dismissed criticism as “all political.”

“The governor has been consistent since the beginning of the pandemic,” Governor’s spokesman Fred Piccolo Jr., said in a statement last week. “Wash hands, maintain social distance, wear a mask, etc. But he’s also adapted to the data as it becomes available. He acted quickly to save thousands of nursing home residents. He knew of drugs in the pipeline and was ready to act for Florida when he knew they were coming online. He’s been consistent even as the pandemic has become political.”

The task force concludes with a stern warning for Florida about holiday gatherings as December unfolds. “Florida has seen … unrelenting community spread and inadequate mitigation,” it states.

The Orlando Sentinel and South Florida Sun Sentinel last week sued to get the Governor’s Office to release task force reports. The lawsuits are the most recent in a series of disclosures questioning DeSantis’ motivations.

A South Florida Sun Sentinel investigation, spanning 50 interviews and 4,000 pages of documents, catalogues how DeSantis in September ordered DOH officials to stop discussing COVID-19, refused to disclose details about the first suspected cases, denied there was statewide community spread and withheld information about infections in schools, prisons, hospitals and nursing homes until legal challenges forced disclosure.

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