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Some Florida Health Workers, Long-Term Care Residents Still Waiting To Get Vaccine

Florida health workers and long-term care facility residents were supposed to get vaccinated before anyone else. But when the state opened up vaccines to anyone 65 and older, it made accessing the limited supplies even harder.
Florida health workers and long-term care facility residents were supposed to get vaccinated before anyone else. But when the state opened up vaccines to anyone 65 and older, it made accessing the limited supplies even harder.

Gov. Ron DeSantis is touting his plan to distribute vaccines to people 65 and older ahead of much of the country. But the rollout has had logistical problems.

Dana Portnoy, 51, has been calling South Florida hospitals for weeks trying to get a coronavirus vaccine. The nurse practitioner treats people at an internal medicine office in Deerfield Beach and also cares for some sicker patients in their homes.

Area hospitals are offering the vaccine to other health workers in the community, but appointments fill up quickly and supplies are limited.

“There was one hospital that was doing it for health care workers on a first-come, first-served basis,” Portnoy said. “I showed up at 6 in the morning and there were 500 people in front of me. I asked the security guard there what time people were starting to line up, and he said between 2 and 3 a.m. I can't get there at 2 in the morning and expect to work a full day.”

Portnoy and other health workers with direct contact with patients were supposed to be first in line for the vaccine, but some without direct ties to hospitals fear they're slipping through the cracks as more seniors in the general population vie for doses.

Portnoy said she is frustrated with the disorganized rollout.

"We had basically from March until December to figure out how to do this, and whoever's in charge of doing this, they just dropped the ball,” she said.

It's hard to say who exactly is in charge in this complex distribution process that involves governments, private companies and community groups. But public health experts say better planning and clearer messaging at the state and federal level would have made the initial rollout less chaotic.

The federal government offered guidelines for distributing vaccines that put a stronger emphasis on frontline workers, like first responders and teachers, but ultimately left it up to states to decide for themselves.

Gov. Ron DeSantis went a different route, and soon after vaccines were released, allowed anyone 65 and older to get them. That’s 4.4 million Floridians.

Jay Wolfson, distinguished professor of public health at the University of South Florida, said the decision left counties and health systems scrambling.

"They don't have the people to administer the vaccine, they don't have the software to register people, they don't have the communications systems to tell people, ‘Here's what the process is,'” he said.

Florida's first phase also prioritizes residents at long-term care facilities, and while Walgreens and CVS are managing that effort, it's going slowly.

Lee Campbell, 64, of Indian Rocks Beach, was concerned to learn the Largo assisted-living facility her 95 year-old mother-in-law lives at isn't offering vaccines until February.

She gets why so many seniors in the community want shots right away. Her husband is 70 and hopes to get an appointment soon.

But Campbell thinks the state should have ensured all residents in long-term care environments, where staff are constantly moving in and out, were vaccinated before it opened the floodgates.

“I can choose to not let anybody come to my house, I can choose to go out as little as possible,” she said. “But when you live in a group home you really don't have that option.”

DeSantis said the state has started sending strike teams to vaccinate residents in long-term care, and is partnering with Publix and setting up its own vaccination sites to ramp up distribution.

The governor has repeatedly defended his plan to prioritize those 65 and older.

“‘Seniors first’ is our mantra, that's our mission,” he said at a press conference earlier this week at the Villages. “When we get through that and get it offered to every senior who wants it, then we'll be able to move on to the next phase. But we're going to continue to put seniors first and I think you'll start to see other states follow suit as well."

This week the federal government recommended all states offer the vaccine to residents over 65 as the nation seeks to get more shots in arms.

But demand significantly outweighs supplies and most people have no sense of when it will be their turn.

Jay Wolfson with USF said that fuels desperation.

“People are anxious and they’re confused, and the information is not always clear and consistent,” he said. “That, I think, will get better, I think things will calm down.”

Communities are already learning lessons and improving the way they distribute vaccines.

Government leaders urge patience. But for frontline workers risking coronavirus exposure every day, patience is a tall order.

Copyright 2021 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

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.