Vaccine initiative saves senior lives

Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks to the media on the first day of Global Medical Response’s large-scale vaccination site that was set up in The Villages on Jan. 12. DeSantis, following his “Seniors First” pledge, targeted large quantities of vaccines for the community of 130,000 seniors.

Gov. Ron DeSantis’ quick actions in putting seniors first in line for COVID-19 vaccinations have proven critical, with federal officials crediting such methods early in the pandemic for saving thousands of lives. When the Department of Health and Human Services on Tuesday said prioritizing seniors saved an estimated 2,400 lives in Florida during this year’s first five months alone, the message contrasted federal recommendations after emergency authorization of the vaccine came Dec. 18.

DeSantis, rather than follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to include service workers of any age, within days studied the data available and ensured the available vaccine supply would first become available to Floridians 65 and older, plus key health care staff.

“We said it was the right thing to do,” said Dr. Jeffrey Lowenkron, chief medical officer at The Villages Health, who also gave credit to President Donald Trump for quickly purchasing vaccine supply and to local officials for setting up how it would get “into people’s arms.”

Almost 90% of seniors statewide have become vaccinated since then, the governor’s office said Thursday.

“The Villages has played an important role in the Governor’s efforts to ensure that Floridians – especially seniors, who are at higher risk of complications – are informed about and have convenient access to free vaccination and early treatment,” said Christina Pushaw, press secretary for DeSantis.

DeSantis turned to The Villages when he wanted to get the message out early. On Dec. 23, DeSantis was present at UF Health The Villages Hospital when 10 villagers were among the nation’s first seniors to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

“These are probably the first members of the community who are senior citizens to be vaccinated, maybe anywhere in the country, but certainly in Florida,” DeSantis said.

He let it be known then that seniors would be the priority as early vaccine supply was not plentiful enough to immediately take care of all 4.4 million of Florida’s residents 65 and up.

“What I would say to the elderly population, it’s going to be reserved for you,” he said at the time.

When seniors in Sumter County were the main source of vaccination demand, GMR administered more than 46,000 doses at drive-up sites, said Dr. Sanford Zelnick, director, Sumter County Health Department.

“Due to the high proportion of seniors in The Villages, he made sure it was one of the first places in Florida where vaccines would be available,” Pushaw said. “Early on in the vaccine rollout, Governor DeSantis opened a state vaccination site in The Villages as well as the Wildwood Community Center, also in Sumter County.”

Sumter was one of the early leaders in the state for county vaccination rates, Lowenkron pointed out.

“A lot of credit goes to the community and the people who live here for recognizing the value of the vaccine before it even became available,” Lowenkron said.

Local vaccination sites saw enough demand to remain open until more than 75% of seniors 65 and up in the tri-county area had become fully vaccinated at the start of June. By then, other providers had become widespread. And after Gov. DeSantis in March began lowering the vaccination age in stages, it wasn’t long before daily vaccination totals declined as he expected.

“Really we’ve gotten to where we wanted, to protect our elderly residents,” Gov. Ron DeSantis said May 12 in The Villages while discussing his Seniors First initiative.

HHS’ report this week also says quick action likely kept 6,700 seniors in Florida out of the hospital and 17,000 from becoming infected at all. Nationally, a larger total of more than 265,000 COVID-19 infections were prevented, along with nearly 39,000 deaths, amon​g Medicare beneficiaries.

From January to May, vaccination grew from 1% to 47% among adults 18 to 64 and from 1% to 80% among seniors, the report found.

Even before vaccines were available, the governor began looking out for Floridians. On March 9, 2020, just days before the World Health Organization labeled the crisis a pandemic, he declared a state of emergency for Florida. He then turned his attention immediately to seniors.

When testing first became available, he was present on day one of one of the first large-scale drive-up testing site for seniors in the nation in March 2020 at The Villages Polo Club - and just the third in the state at that point. That effort was made possible through a partnership with University of Florida Health and The Villages Health.

It ended up testing around 4,400 seniors, according to Carla VandeWeerd, director of research for The Villages Health, who collaborated on the effort with Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of UF’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, and medical students at UF.

“We forget how much we did know back then,” Lauzardo would say a year later. “Access wasn’t around back then, and getting access to testing was almost impossible.”

The governor’s commitment to seniors also was evident when he ensured the opening of a state-sponsored site for free monoclonal antibody treatments in The Villages, in Barnstorm Theater at Brownwood Paddock Square. Thousands of treatments have been issued here, the governor’s office said, among more than 120,000 statewide. Monoclonal antibodies can treat anyone infected with COVID-19, whether they are unvaccinated or have a breakthrough case.

Seniors 65 and up are among groups eligible for booster doses of the vaccine. While a foundation of interest has played a part in demand for boosters, the delta variant was on many patients’ minds as well.

“We’re seeing a fair amount of interest in boosters purely because people are seeing more people dying from COVID-19,” Lowenkron said. “Knowing the vaccine is the single best way to prevent it, there’s interest.”

Specialty Editor Bill Zimmerman can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5284, or