Florida Wants $17,000 to Release Documents About COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout

We filed a public records request with the Florida Department of Health for information about its vaccine distribution process. It wants $17,000 before it will release anything.
January 5, 2021, 3:58pm
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Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The Florida Department of Health wants nearly $17,000 to hand over public records about the state’s coronavirus vaccine prioritization and distribution plan—a high financial barrier preventing the release of documents that could shed light on a process that’s been a confusing, bureaucratic headache.

In mid-December, VICE News submitted a public records request asking for vaccine distribution-related correspondence between the state’s health department and county and city health officials, nonprofit organizations, private companies, elected officials, advisory committees, law enforcement, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over a two-and-a-half-month period. Those records, which could tell the story of the state’s vaccination rollout, may include emails, presentations, memos, and more.

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The state told us it has the records, but said we'd have to pay $16,982 in order to get them. The fee, the Florida Department of Health said, is for $36 per hour for 470 hours of work, plus an IT charge and a fee for “public records staff time.”

“All payments must be received prior to review, processing, and/or release of records,” the invoice reads. 

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After the publication of this article, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health said “All requests for records and emails must be reviewed to ensure no confidential and/or exempt information is released. The hourly rate is based on the individual with lowest hourly rate capable of completing (reviewing/redacting, if necessary) this request, which is based on subject matter and/or individuals that sent or received the emails” and said the fee could be reduced if we asked for fewer, more specific documents.
 
It is relatively common for states and the federal government to charge requesters a nominal fee to release documents, but the topic of Freedom of Information (FOI) fees is an important one among government transparency experts. Many reporters and serial FOI filers believe that artificially high fees are a tool governments use to prevent the release of documents that are in the public interest and were created using taxpayer money. Florida has repeatedly come under fire for its lack of transparency about public health information during the coronavirus pandemic; last month, police raided the home of a former Department of Health official who said she was ousted after refusing to manipulate coronavirus data

Frank LoMonte, director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida, noted the cost isn’t outside the realm of what a state agency may charge, nor is it illegal. And he’s seen worse. Even so, putting a price tag on public records guarantees “99% of America can’t afford it.” 

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“There’s a very good policy question about whether requesters should be paying tens of thousands of dollars for information that the public desperately needs to see,” LoMonte said. “That’s really the bigger question: Shouldn’t this state, and all states, be pushing out information about their coronavirus vaccine rollout without having to be asked under threat of a public records law?” 

VICE News made similar requests to every state health agency nationwide, since the nation’s massive vaccination campaign has been largely haphazard and problem-laden. After months of planning from state and federal health officials, fewer than 5 million doses have made their way into the arms of willing Americans, even though more than 15.4 million have been distributed in total, according to the CDC.

In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis bucked federal prioritization recommendations last month to more quickly get vaccines out to the elderly, rather than a broader set of essential workers, it’s been just as bad. 

Elderly people, whom DeSantis says are at the greatest risk of dying from the virus and deserve the jab soonest, have been camping out overnight and lining up in droves just to have a chance at the shot. They’ve flooded websites and phone lines to the point of crashing them. Many residents are confused at best, and furious at worst.

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Some county health departments are also using Eventbrite, the online ticketing platform, to schedule vaccine appointments. That, too, is lacking a clear explanation; the state health department and Eventbrite didn’t respond to Motherboard’s request for comment about the issue Monday.

The Tampa Bay Times reported that DeSantis and his office have failed to answer “basic questions asked by Floridians and media outlets seeking details on the early stages of vaccine distribution.” The Palm Beach Post wrote in an editorial that the state’s only public, draft vaccine rollout plan dates back to October, and that state officials needed to be transparent if they wanted to gain the public’s support.

Non-journalists, too, are getting irked with what they see as poor planning. 80-year-old Judy Swan told the Tampa Bay Times that she’d called her county’s hotline hundreds of times to try and get a shot for herself and her husband, which frustrated her. Mildred Smiley, a widow over the age of 80, told the Palm Beach Post that her doctors, hospitals, and health clinics “know nothing,” calling the process “disheartening” and “degrading.” 

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“I think what you are seeing is the general public is finally experiencing all of the same frustrations that journalists have been experiencing for many years: It’s hard to get public records, they cost too much, it takes too long, there are way too many exemptions,” LoMonte said. “The public has only just recently started to feel the impact of inadequate public records laws in a very real, salient, life-and-death way.”

Rebekah Jones, the data scientist who was fired from her post with the Florida Department of Health last year over claims of insubordination, accused the state of manipulating coronavirus data to make itself look better, according to the New York Times. State officials have denied her allegations, according to the Times. 

Last month, state police raided her home while investigating unauthorized messages that had been sent to health department workers through the agency’s emergency alert system, according to the Times. 

The messages read, in part: “It’s time to speak up before another 17,000 people are dead.” Jones said she didn’t have anything to do with it, according to the Times.

Update: This article has been updated with comment from the Florida Department of Health.