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In Fall 2020, WUSF began reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida's health care system. Our stories focus on the voices of residents in communities of color and how Florida's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution affects them.WUSF’s reporting on disparities in health care access is funded in part by the COVID-19 Response Initiative of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Limited Supply, Confusion Hamper Efforts To Vaccinate 'Extremely Vulnerable'

A nurse gives a young boy a vaccination.
A nurse gives a vaccine to a patient.

Hospitals are allowed to vaccinate high-risk patients who aren't seniors or health workers, but most don't have enough supplies to do so.

Certain people with underlying health problems who are younger than 65 are allowed to get coronavirus vaccines in Florida right now, according to the executive orderGov. Ron DeSantis signed in December.

But there's confusion as to who qualifies and how they can get their shots.

The state says hospital providers can vaccinate individuals they deem are "extremely vulnerable" to COVID-19.

The policy is rarely being applied in the state, according to State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando.)

“And if it is, the protocol for what defines a comorbidity is something that has been kept internal within the hospitals and not really something that the public has been able to understand to see whether or not themselves or their loved ones qualify," he said.

Smith wrote an open letter to hospitals this week asking them to offer what’s left of their vaccine supply to vulnerable patients struggling to access protection.

He said he was encouraged to see Jackson Health System announce that it will start vaccinating patients who are 55 and older, live in Miami-Dade County and have one of seven health conditions. The listincludes some heart problems and organ transplants, among others.

Smith said he hopes more hospitals will follow suit with similar strategies, and he suggested including cancer patients and adults with Down syndrome.

“Now one of the challenges we've run into is that it's not entirely clear, because the state has not released information, exactly how much inventory on hand our hospitals still have as it relates to first doses that could be available,” he said.

Smith followed up on Thursday evening after he said he learned from state health officials that there are about 40,000 available first doses in 300 or so hospitals, but it’s unclear where those are located.

Major hospitals including Tampa General, Orlando Health, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Sarasota Memorial and HCA West Florida facilities told WUSF they don’t have any more first doses.

They said they’re focused on getting second doses to health workers and community members who received initial injections at their sites.

“We do not have sufficient supply at this time to schedule any more first doses, and we have not been notified when or if we will receive future supplies,” said Kim Savage, spokesperson for Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Rep. Smith said it seems like the state is shifting its vaccination strategyto give local health departments and private pharmacies like Publix more control, although he added he’d be surprised if hospitals never again received new supply.

But he said given the lack of available doses at hospitals right now, it’s time for Gov. DeSantis to revise his executive order so that county health departments and retail partners can also vaccinate high-risk individuals under 65.

“So we can really begin opening the doors of access to folks who really need it,” he said.

The state has not responded to a request for comment.

But BayCare Health System, which has also paused new vaccinations due to limited supply, said the Agency for Health Care Administration reached out to them and other organizations on Wednesday asking to help vaccinate extremely vulnerable patients under 65.

“We are working now to determine how we can be a partner in safely and efficiently supporting this request,” said BayCare spokesperson Vjollca Hysenlika.

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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.