Publix COVID-19 vaccine deal with Florida raises questions

Jeffrey Schweers, Tallahassee Democrat
·6 min read

From day one, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the state’s “innovative partnership” with the Lakeland-based Publix supermarket chain in expanding the number of locations across the state for seniors 65 and over to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

State officials have not provided an agreement, contract, or even any documentation outlining the terms of that partnership – even after giving Publix nearly 500,000 doses of the vaccine officials call “liquid gold.”

“As part of our ongoing efforts to increase vaccinations and put Florida’s seniors first, I’m pleased to announce this innovative partnership with Publix,” DeSantis said at the start of January when he announced the deal. “At the end of the day, we are all in this together, and the state of Florida thanks Publix for their willingness to step up and lend their infrastructure to this critical cause.”

The partnership: Gov. DeSantis announces expanded Publix vaccinations throughout Florida

DeSantis said the state was looking for retail partners to help set up vaccination sites around the state, and Publix stepped up to the plate.

But critics say suddenly shifting such quantities to a single grocery store chain raises questions about how equitably the vaccine is being spread, even if it's reaching poorer communities that are nowhere near a Publix.

"I have a half-million constituents who ask me all the time where they can get a vaccine," said Democratic state Sen. Tina Polsky of Boca Raton in Palm Beach County. For weeks, DeSantis redistributed most of the county health department's supply to Publix, which doesn't have locations in some of the county's poorer communities.

"Publix shouldn't be the only option," Polsky said.

DeSantis reversed course, and the county health department is now using its allotment to whittle down a backlog of some 400,000 people who signed up for the vaccine.

"They ran out because Publix and the South Florida Fairgrounds got all the shots," Polsky said.

'We are not paying Publix'

DeSantis has waved off questions about the $100,000 a Publix PAC gave to his Friends of Ron DeSantis campaign committee. Those donations came the month before he started diverting thousands of the federally distributed vaccine doses from other programs around the state to the food chain’s pharmacies.

“We are not paying Publix,” outgoing Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz said in a Jan. 28 email requesting a copy of the contract with the state. He did not reply to a follow-up request for documentation of the arrangement. He has since resigned to spend more time with his family in South Florida.

Gov. DeSantis' office: Publix PAC money not linked to launch of COVID-19 vaccine program

That was weeks before a new federal retail program was turned on under the Biden administration. During its first week, the federal government sent doses to Publix, Walmart, Sam's Club, Winn Dixie and other stores in addition to the state’s regular weekly allotment.

Governors: We want more COVID vaccine coordination and reporting clarity

Multiple requests for documentation of the agreement since January with the state and Publix have gone unanswered.

The governor’s office told one news outlet there was no “contract” with Publix but later confirmed to USA TODAY Network-Florida that there was an agreement and would provide a copy. A Department of Health official also said there was an agreement with Publix and that the state had been diverting a portion of its weekly shipment to Publix, beginning Jan. 5.

Neither has delivered the documents, even after reminders were sent out this week.

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The state’s COVID-19 vaccination draft plan calls for the department of health to coordinate with statewide retail pharmacies as "potential vaccine administration partners through corporate infrastructure." Additionally, the state plans to support the federal initiative with pharmacies that will, among other goals, establish clinics at long-term care facilities for vaccination delivery.

The state plan envisioned pharmacies to play a key role in vaccinating the general population similar to how they provide annual flu shots.

Publix received its 15,000 doses the week of Jan. 5, 30,000 the next week, and 60,000 the following week, ultimately plateauing at 70,000 a week, an amount it still gets in addition to its allotment under the federal retail program, according to records received from the state under a public records request.

Terri Kado, 66, right, and Patty Tubbs, 68, friends from Fort Myers Beach, Florida, wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine in the early morning hours of Dec. 30 at Lakes Park Regional Library.
Terri Kado, 66, right, and Patty Tubbs, 68, friends from Fort Myers Beach, Florida, wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine in the early morning hours of Dec. 30 at Lakes Park Regional Library.

In 11 weeks, the state has given Publix 456,000 doses, or 14.25% of the state’s allotment, allowing the company to expand its locations that offer the vaccine from 325 stores in 23 counties to almost 600 stores in 41 of the state's 67 counties.

In order to receive and administer COVID-19 vaccines from the state, Publix had to enroll in the federal COVID-19 vaccine program because the vaccine is a federally distributed resource, said Maria Brous, director of communications for Publix.

“Enrollment includes, among other things, entering into a standard COVID-19 Vaccine Program Provider Agreement for Pharmacies with the CDC (which we have done, similar to other pharmacies administering the vaccine),” Brous said.

The agreement sets forth performance obligations for all COVID-19 vaccine shipments, whether they come from the state share or under the federal retail pharmacy program, she said.

But she did not provide a copy of the agreement Publix has with the State of Florida. Publix does say on its website that it has vaccinated 250,000 Floridians and used up all of the shots it received.

Why is the public in the dark? Communication was key to Florida's COVID vaccine rollout

How is Publix paying for vaccinations?

As of Monday, the state had administered 4 million doses to 2.7 million people – 1.3 million with a first dose and 1.4 million with both doses.

Brous didn't answer a question about how Publix would be compensated for its efforts, but Publix requires all people who have an appointment to bring their health insurance or Medicare card.

On Jan. 21, 2021, there is no line waiting for Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at a Publix pharmacy in Jensen Beach, Fla.
On Jan. 21, 2021, there is no line waiting for Moderna COVID-19 vaccines at a Publix pharmacy in Jensen Beach, Fla.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the federal government is providing the vaccine for free to everyone in the U.S., but vaccine providers can bill a patient's private health insurance company or Medicare.

Vaccine providers can seek to be reimbursed by the federal Health Resources and Services Administration's Provider Relief Fund if a patient has no insurance or their policy does not cover vaccinations.

"No one can be denied a vaccine if they are unable to pay a vaccine administration fee," the CDC said.​

Jeffrey Schweers is a capital bureau reporter for USA TODAY NETWORK-Florida. Contact Schweers at jschweers@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @jeffschweers.

This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Florida, Publix COVID-19 vaccine partnership raises questions