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Florida Counties Preparing For Mass Coronavirus Vaccine Rollout

Hillsborough County Communications
The Florida Channel
illsborough County hosted some drive-thru flu shot clinics at local schools and used them as test-runs for eventual coronavirus vaccination sites.

As the first round of vaccines for the coronavirus are delivered, officials in cities and counties around the state are preparing for what will be a massive effort to vaccinate the general population.

On a recent evening, the parking lot of King High School in Tampa was transformed into a drive-thru flu shot clinic.

County workers in bright yellow vests waved cars through check-in stations. Nurses in scrubs and PPE spread out to vaccinate multiple people at a time.

Hillsborough County teacher Mark Fletcher of Valrico pulled up and a nurse asked him to put his car in park and turn off the engine. She joked about not wanting to get anyone’s toes run over; he called her and her colleagues “rock stars.”

The nurse asked Fletcher, who also wore a mask, to open his door and roll up his sleeve. She wiped down his arm, stuck the needle in and less than a minute later was sending him on his way.

The purpose of this site isn't actually to give people flu shots, although that's a plus. It’s one of several test-runs the county has done in recent weeks for drive-thru sites to get coronavirus vaccines.

It's just one example of what officials in cities and counties around the state are doing to prepare for what will be a massive effort to vaccinate the general population.

"Safety is the number one priority, but we want to make sure we get our staff comfortable working these events and make sure that we increase the speed of our process so we are ready to rock 'n' roll when it is available to the general public,” said Kevin Watler, public information officer with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.

Residents can expect to eventually see these kinds of point of distribution sites, or “pods,” open throughout the community. The set up will be almost identical to the one at this flu shot site.

Visitors will have to stick around for 15 minutes or so after the vaccine in case there’s any negative reactions, and unlike with a flu shot, they may have to return a few weeks later for a second dose depending on which vaccine they get.

A phased approach

Watler said the county will choose locations based on practical factors like space and traffic flow, as well as where residents need them most.

"The amount of pods we have really will depend on how much vaccine we have,” he said. “We don't have an answer right now, there's a lot of things we don't have answers for. So we have the ability to ramp things up quickly, or we may just have to take things a little slow."

Distribution to the masses doesn't come into play until Phase 3 of Florida's roll out.

Planning chief at Hillsborough's Office of Emergency Management Marcus Martin said health workers, elderly residents and first responders are the main priority right now.

"Phase 2 is going to transition into critical organizations: transportation, utilities, education partners, etc.," he said.

County officials said there are hundreds of thousands of Hillsborough residents who fall into these initial categories so it could be several months before the rest of the public gets to visit these vaccination pods.

The drive-thru sites are just one of the ways Hillsborough and other counties are preparing to distribute the vaccines.

In Miami-Dade County, leaders are in the beginning stages of crafting distribution plans. They plan to build off of the coronavirus testing model, including having some sites open until at least 7 p.m.

“Maybe not at all sites but definitely at many sites for COVID-19 vaccinations,” said Jason Fernandez, a captain in Miami-Dade Fire Rescue.

Fernandez said they’re also keeping pedestrians in mind.

“We would like to do a drive-thru and walk up for those that don’t have access to vehicles,” he said.

Last week, Dr. Alina Alonso, the director of the Florida Department of Health in Palm Beach County, sat at a long table in front of commissioners. She gave them a list of other planned sites, like pharmacies, doctors offices and emergency and urgent care centers.

For those who can’t make it out for a vaccine, the county will go to them, Alonso said.

“We will also be able to have the mobile units that will be able to go out into our specific areas,” she said.

She was referring to agriculture work sites that are remote and far from the nearest urban area, or to homes of elderly residents or others who are not able to go out.

Meanwhile, as these plans get solidified, Alonso said she wants to help people understand that the vaccines are safe.

“The African American community is very leery of the vaccine, and so I’ve talked to some of the leaders in terms of how we’re gonna get the word out and get them to trust this,” she said.

She said manufacturers did not cut corners, despite the fact that the first vaccine was produced in just 10 months.

“I will take this vaccination as soon as it’s my turn,” she said. “Just because I’m a doctor I’m not going to jump in front of someone who’s at the hospital.”

She’s urging local elected officials to get their shots in public, to help build trust.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.