As the state approaches another morbid coronavirus milestone of 20,000 deaths, Gov. Ron DeSantis delivered some glad tidings to Floridians this week: Hope is on the horizon.
Florida is in line to receive nearly 180,000 doses of Pfizer Inc.'s COVID-19 vaccine as soon as federal health authorities sign off on the drug, with 81,900 doses slated to be used in long-term care facilities and the remainder going to five hospitals throughout the state.
But the news wasn't all giddy for DeSantis and his administration this week.
Rebekah Jones, a former Department of Health data analyst, made the rounds of national news programs after gun-wielding state police executed a search warrant at her Tallahassee home on Monday. Jones tweeted a video of agents entering her house and accused DeSantis of sending the "Gestapo" after her.
The DeSantis administration fired Jones this year after she accused state health officials of manipulating data to suppress the number of reported COVID-19 cases and deaths in Florida. After her dismissal, Jones set up a competing COVID-19 dashboard to display data about the virus.
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The Florida Department of Law Enforcement conducted the search at Jones' house after an investigation allegedly linked her home address to a Nov. 10 message sent on an internal Department of Health multi-user account.
"It's time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead. You know this is wrong. You don't have to be part of this. Be a hero. Speak out before it's too late," the message from an unidentified sender said.
On Thursday, FDLE Commissioner Rick Swearingen took the unusual step of releasing body camera footage from the scene outside Jones' home. Two videos showed agents waited 23 minutes, repeatedly knocking on her front door and calling her phone, before Jones came outside.
Swearingen said he decided to distribute the recordings after his agents were "vilified" following the encounter with Jones and her family. The FDLE chief said his officers "exercised extreme patience" waiting for her to acknowledge their presence.
During an appearance Friday in Tampa, DeSantis angrily scolded the media for referring to Monday's event as a "raid" and lashed out directly at Jones.
"This individual became known, because she alleged a conspiracy theory at the Department of Health, which is unfounded and never proven at all. She was fired because she wasn't doing a good job. None of the stuff that she said was ever proven. You'd think that would be the end of it. Obviously, she's got issues. On this situation, there was an intrusion of a very sensitive system. It's an emergency alert system. If somebody gets a hold of that, they can do a lot of damage," DeSantis said.
"Just because you are a darling of some corners of the fever swamps, that does not exempt you from following the law," he added.
The controversy about Jones and the news about the Pfizer vaccine came as COVID-19 cases and deaths continued to climb throughout the state.
State health officials have recorded more than 1 million COVID-19 cases and 19,851 coronavirus-related deaths since the onset of the pandemic.
But DeSantis said vaccines that are about to be approved by federal officials will make a "huge difference," especially for older Floridians and those who are at higher risk of becoming seriously ill or dying if they are exposed to the highly contagious virus.
"There is a light at the end of the tunnel," DeSantis told reporters Friday in Tampa.
A day earlier, the governor announced that Florida will receive 179,400 doses of Pfizer Inc.'s vaccine in its first shipment from the federal government.
More than half of the vaccine — 97,500 doses — will be sent to five Florida hospitals to be administered to high-contact and high-exposure health care personnel, DeSantis said.
The remaining 81,900 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be sent to CVS and Walgreens and the Department of Health for use in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. DeSantis has made clear that residents of long-term care facilities are his top priority.
"We are working to get as much vaccine for our citizens as possible, but Florida will not, nor will any state, have enough to vaccinate everyone right off the bat," DeSantis said in the video.
At a White House vaccine summit Tuesday, DeSantis indicated that all Florida nursing home residents could be inoculated by the end of the year.
"These next six to eight weeks, if we can get the nursing homes, first-line health care (workers) and then start getting it out to the broader senior population, man, that is going to make such a big difference," DeSantis said Friday.