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Lee County Manager Responds to Criticism of COVID Vaccine Rollout

Unlike Lee County, Charlotte County Vaccinated people by appointment in a drive-thru setup
Unlike Lee County, Charlotte County Vaccinated people by appointment in a drive-thru setup

After seniors camped out in 50-degree weather overnight to wait for a vaccination, Roger Desjarlais discusses the decision to not use appointments.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais found himself on defense Wednesday after local headlines were dominated by images of seniors waiting for hours and camping overnight for the COVID-19 vaccine.

With low temperatures reaching the mid-50s overnight Monday, vaccination hopefuls age 65 and older bundled up and brought lawn chairs to vaccine sites.

Public reaction was swift and angry.

“I got a lot of hate mail in the last couple of days. I don’t think I’ve been called incompetent so many times in a string of emails ever in my career,” Desjarlais said.

He went on to explain the decision-making for the county’s vaccine rollout, saying there was little information in the lead-up to vaccine becoming available in Lee County.

“I mean, all of a sudden with very little warning the vaccines are starting to make their way into Florida and all of the other states,” Desjarlais said.

Administered by the Florida Department of Health in each of the state’s 67 counties, department officials in Lee County decided late the previous week to look to the county for additional logistical support. Desjarlais said he first got involved Dec. 26.

“That’s when we really got to work in earnest, Saturday. That’s when we started standing this thing up. So now what?” he said.

With no appointment system in place, seniors started planning where to pitch their tents.

“The biggest criticism that we’ve gotten so far has been, ‘We’ve got people camping out all night. Why don’t we have a reservation system?’” he said.

Desjarlais says Internet-based appointment systems have too many technical issues.

“Every county that’s done it so far, their website crashes,” Desjarlais said.

Neighboring Collier and Charlotte counties have not reported problems with their reservation systems. Desjarlais said that appointments would make it more difficult to move people through quickly.

“I’m not embarrassed. I’m actually pretty proud of the way that it’s gone,” he said.

Concerns have come up that long lines of maskless people waiting for a vaccine could become superspreader events. Desjarlais maintains that wearing masks or camping in the cold are personal decisions for the seniors eligible for inoculation under this first phase of the vaccine rollout.

“We told people, 'Don’t camp out, don’t stand in line,' but we’re also not going to arrest them if they do. They can do that if they so choose,” Desjarlais said.

After the long lines in the first week of its vaccine rollout, Desjarlais said the county is working on a reservation system to launch possibly sometime next week.

Copyright 2021 WGCU. To see more, visit WGCU.

Julie Glenn is the host of Gulf Coast Live. She has been working in southwest Florida as a freelance writer since 2007, most recently as a regular columnist for the Naples Daily News. She began her broadcasting career in 1993 as a reporter/anchor/producer for a local CBS affiliate in Quincy, Illinois. After also working for the NBC affiliate, she decided to move to Parma, Italy where she earned her Master’s degree in communication from the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Her undergraduate degree in Mass Communication is from the University of Missouri at Kansas City.