TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis suggested Thursday that he could widen vaccinations against the coronavirus to the general public as soon as April, possibly becoming the first state to offer the vaccines to anyone who wants them in a place that was an early epicenter of the virus.
The governor’s announcement underscored confidence that the wider availability of vaccines, especially Johnson & Johnson’s single-dose vaccine, will allow the state to quickly provide shots to anyone eager for one and boost lagging vaccination rates in rural counties.
DeSantis said at a news conference that the widened availability of shots would depend on vaccine deliveries from the federal government — but he expressed confidence that production would soon ramp up.
DeSantis had already planned to lower the eligibility age for vaccinations to 55 — making that announcement just days after dropping it to 60 from the current minimum of 65. He said that was possible because of the state’s high rate of vaccination of seniors and softening demand among the oldest seniors.
“We could be in a situation to go down to 60 on Monday, we get to 55 relatively soon, and as the supply floodgates open, we could be in a position sometime in April where it’s just available and people can get it,” he said.
The prospect of widespread availability of shots comes as the governor also announced a further expansion of the vaccination infrastructure that includes partnerships with retail pharmacies, including those at hundreds of grocery stores and chain drugstores.
The governor has been under pressure by critics to expand the distribution of vaccines — not just geographically but also socioeconomically. DeSantis has come under fire in recent weeks because of the appearance of inequities in vaccine distribution.
To date, about 3.8 million Floridians, including 2.7 million seniors over 65, have gotten at least one shot of three different vaccines approved in the United States to protect against the coronavirus. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require an initial shot and a booster shot weeks later.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one shot, and Florida health officials hope the single dose will prove popular, especially in rural reaches of the state where vaccination rates are lagging.
DeSantis stopped in Lake City, Florida, on Thursday to announce that the state was distributing about 1,000 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in the northern rural outpost.
“This is part of an effort to surge vaccines to areas performing a little below the state average in terms of senior coverage,” the governor said, noting that counties that have senior vaccination rates falling below 50% are located in rural areas.
In Columbia County, home to Lake City, less than half of its nearly 13,000 seniors 65 and older have been vaccinated, according to an analysis of state health and population data. Statewide, more than 60% of that age bracket have gotten shots.