FILE - Ron DeSantis, Florida Legislature

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks Tuesday, March 2, 2021 during his State of the State address at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Fla. 

(The Center Square) – Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is disputing claims he is channeling COVID-19 vaccines to Republican strongholds as a 2022 campaign strategy, dismissing allegations of “vaccine favoritism” as political carping by “partisan corporate media.”

“I think it’s a mistake to try to demonize certain seniors. There’s some elements, particularly the partisan corporate media, who doesn’t want people being vaccinated who disagree with them politically,” he said Tuesday in Lehigh Acres. “That’s insane.”

Allegations of “vaccine favoritism” surfaced last month when COVID-19 vaccination “pop-up pods” in wealthy Lakewood Ranch and Key Largo enclaves drew scrutiny and revealed the Governor’s Office coordinated the events with campaign donors and supporters.

DeSantis’ “pop-up pod” program directs vaccines to inoculation sites at the request of local groups and leaders.

The governor maintains there have been pods for Jewish Holocaust survivors and Cuban Bay of Pigs veterans, and in Sun City Center, Delray Beach, The Villages and Pahokee, a Lake Okeechobee community among the state’s poorest zip codes.

“Black, white, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat, it doesn’t matter,” DeSantis said, “if you’re 65 and up, we want to get you the shot.”

DeSantis said Manatee County was targeted because it was “one of the worst counties in the state” for senior vaccinations.

“They were like 20-some percent” of seniors vaccinated, he said. “So we said, ‘Where can we go to make an impact?’ So we did a senior pod at Lakewood Ranch, which is very successful, thousands of seniors got it. So what we did worked in Manatee — we’re not done in Manatee — but that’s what it was about.”

Florida Congressional Democrats, including former Republican governor and current U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried and Florida Senate Minority Leader Gary Farmer, D-Lighthouse Point, are demanding a federal investigation into the pods.

Democrats making allegations against a Republican governor can be discharged as partisan sniping — Crist and Fried are leading candidates to challenge DeSantis in 2022 — but the veracity of the claims are bolstered by text exchanges before 3,000 vaccines were delivered to Lakewood Ranch, and by a South Florida hospital disputing it requested delivery of 1,200 vaccines to Ocean Reef Club on Key Largo.

The Lakewood Ranch “pop-up pod” drew immediate criticism even before the governor acknowledged his office coordinated with developer Rex Jenson, who Crist said has contributed $900,000 to DeSantis’ campaigns.

According to text messages obtained by the Bradenton Herald, on Feb. 9 Jensen texted Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, “Gov said he might show up. Should try to see if that would help him get exposure here.”

“Excellent point,” Baugh responded. “After all, ‘22 is right around the corner.”

Jensen said the governor’s staff asked for a list of vaccine recipients, which irked him.

“Amazing,” he texted Baugh. “They want me to maintain a list. They can’t. Screw this.”

The Bradenton Herald’s tale-of-the-texts was preceded last week by Baptist Health South Florida disputing DeSantis’ claim he “had nothing to do with” vaccines delivered to Ocean Reef in January when inoculations were scarce.

A Baptist Health spokesperson said Ocean Reef asked for vaccines and the Governor’s Office requested the hospital administer them. 

According to the Miami Herald, 17 Ocean Reef residents donated $5,000 each to DeSantis’ committee as of December. Former Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, an Ocean Reef resident, gave DeSantis’ campaign $250,000 in February, the Miami Herald reported, noting the committee received $2.7 million in contributions last month.

“If this isn’t public corruption, I don’t know what is,” Fried said last week. “Give campaign contributions big dollars, get special access to vaccines – ahead of seniors, ahead of our teachers, ahead of our farmworkers and so many of our residents here in our state of Florida who are scared and who are wanting these vaccines.”