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Florida Unveils Telephone Appointment System For COVID-19 Vaccine

Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a new mass vaccination site in The Villages Tuesday morning.
Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke at a new mass vaccination site in The Villages Tuesday morning.

For now, the pilot is only available in some of the state's largest counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Lee.

Florida's Health Department quietly launched a pilot program of a new telephone appointment system meant to help counties better handle the demand for life-saving coronavirus vaccines.

Some hospitals, county health departments and vaccination centers were plunged in chaos after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last month that he would open the vaccines to seniors 65 and older, prompting long lines, crashed websites and disappointment among thousands of Floridians looking to protect themselves against COVID-19.

In a tweet Thursday, Broward County health officials unwittingly announced the “new state appointment system” ahead of state health officials.

"Appointments for DOH-Broward COVID-19 #vaccination sites can be scheduled using the new State appointment system starting immediately," the tweet said. "Seniors ages 65 and older, and frontline healthcare workers, can call (866) 201-6313 to request an appointment. The TTY number is (833) 476-1526."

For now, the pilot is only available in some of the state's largest counties: Miami-Dade, Broward, Duval, Hillsborough and Lee.

The system relies on old-school technology — the telephone — to reserve an appointment for the shot. State officials said a phone system was more suited for seniors, who might be less used to web-based technology and might need more assistance.

During a legislative hearing earlier this month, the state's director of emergency management, Jared Moskowitz, acknowledged the “chaotic” environment spawned by the release of two vaccines approved by the U.S. government to combat the coronavirus outbreak.

“The state is actively collaborating with counties and local officials to launch a system that will include a streamlined vaccination appointment process,” said Jason Mahon, the spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management. “We will continue to expand this pilot to include more counties in the coming week.”

But even as state health officials — urged on by DeSantis — unveiled the new system and expand vaccination sites, concern remained over whether there is enough of the vaccines to go around.

On Friday, DeSantis appeared on FOX News with a 100-year-old World War II veteran who got vaccinated during the appearance and who the governor said was the 1 millionth senior to get a shot against the coronavirus. But it was a dubious claim, considering his own health department was reporting Thursday that less than 800,000 seniors had received the shot.

DeSantis later said at a news conference in Key Largo that the shot was symbolic of reaching that goal.

“We think that today will be the millionth senior,” DeSantis said, adding that there's a lag time in reporting the number of shots administered. “We're 800-some thousand that's been reported as of midnight last night. We really believe that in a few more days as the reports come in, we will actually cross one million 65 and up that will have gotten shots."

On Friday, most of the Democrats on the state's congressional delegation sent DeSantis a letter expressing “serious concerns with the state's rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.”

They asserted that more than 1 million unused vaccines were on “on hold" in Florida, suggesting that the state was not expeditiously administering the doses.

It also chided the governor for confusing and misleading the public on vaccine distribution and availability, adding that there was “a perception of unfairness and political motivation.”

And they faulted the governor and his administration for the poor infrastructure to schedule appointments. State officials had no immediate comment on those assertions.

Jolie Abreu has been trying unsuccessfully to secure a vaccine appointment for her 92-year-old grandmother in Palm Beach County, and she heard that Publix, the state's largest grocery chain, was opening slots through an online platform Friday at 6 a.m. She logged in exactly at that time, but her screen displayed the site was already full with other customers due to “tremendous demand."

“I sat there until 7:30 a.m. or so waiting. The smaller counties booked up around 7 a.m.,” Abreu said, adding that other family members had also tried unsuccessfully on Wednesday.

State officials hope that the new appointment system — which is expected to expand to more counties next week — will help address some of the challenges counties and seniors have faced in scheduling shots.

Florida has recorded more than 1.6 million COVID-19 infections, with the number of deaths now approaching 25,000. On Friday morning, there were 6,911 people being treated for the disease in state's hospitals, according to an online census of hospitals It was the first time that figure was below 7,000 for more than two weeks.

The current winter outbreak is the state’s third major wave of infections since last March, with the worst coming during summer. Hospitalizations have begun ticking downward after plateauing between 7,000 and 8,000. That compares with nearly 10,000 at the height of Florida’s summer wave.

Gomez Licon reported from Miami. AP writer Brendan Farrington in Tallahassee contributed to this report.

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Adriana Gomez Licon