TAMPA, Fla. — A county commissioner who provided special “VIP” access to coronavirus vaccines at a state-run site in Florida has apologized.
Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh had worked with the governor’s office to set up a pop-up vaccination site for residents in the 34202 and 34211 zip codes, two of the county’s wealthiest areas.
Normally, Manatee County’s waitlist program randomly selects residents to sign up for a vaccine, but according to emails obtained via a public records request, Baugh’s staff manipulated the database to pull only residents from those two zip codes.
Emails also show Baugh created a “VIP” list for the vaccine and asked Public Safety Director Jacob Saur to ensure she and four others could get vaccinated at the clinic.
According to reports, Baugh did not receive a vaccine, but three people on her list said they were called to schedule an appointment.
The other commissioners were reportedly not aware of Baugh’s plans for the pop-up until Tuesday. Baugh faced backlash at the next board meeting.
“I will tell you that personally, yes, I would help do it again anywhere in Manatee County if we could get more vaccine. To me, that is what is important here — the number of vaccines that are coming into Manatee County. Did I even stop to think that this board and others would be upset over it? No, to be honest, I thought it was a great idea,” Baugh said at Tuesday’s meeting.
By Thursday, Baugh had changed her tone.
“I want to apologize to all the residents I have disappointed, according to some news outlets,” Baugh said at Thursdsay’s public meeting. “It is true that I sent the email because I wanted to make sure certain people were on the list.”
Baugh also showed remorse for those who made her “VIP” list and asked that they be given more privacy after their names were printed in the newspaper. Then she apologized to the governor.
“I also want to apologize to Gov. DeSantis. I don’t do that because I feel that I’m putting him in jeopardy because of Lakewood Ranch. I did exactly what he wanted. I am thankful and appreciate that he brought 3,000 additional doses to this county. That’s 3,000 more than we would’ve had,” she added.
Gov. Ron DeSantis has come under fire for giving special vaccine access to some of the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods. State data has shown residents in more affluent areas are getting vaccinated at a faster rate than those in low-income neighborhoods.
“There is no reason that Gov. DeSantis should be rationing vaccines based on political influence,” said Florida Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried. “This is troubling and potentially illegal.”
When asked about the disparities on Wednesday, DeSantis said the state “wanted to find communities that had high levels of seniors living in there, and this [Lakewood Ranch] obviously has a high concentration.”
However, the two zip codes being served by the site in Lakewood Ranch appear to have fewer coronavirus cases than other areas in Manatee County, a map tracking the outbreak shows.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it,” DeSantis said. “And we’re totally happy to do that. So anyone that is saying that [there is a problem], let us know. If you want us to send it to Sarasota next time, or Charlotte, or Pasco, or wherever, let us know. We’re happy to do it.”
DeSantis appeared on Fox News on Thursday night to defend his actions. Baugh said she was “embarrassed” when Manatee County was mentioned in his interview.