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Free Health Fair Helps Students Prep for School

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Lottie Watts
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Most kids are heading back to school in Florida next week.  But before they can sit down in a classroom, many will have to sit down in the doctor's office for required vaccinations or a physical.  

That presents a dilemma for kids from families who are uninsured or underinsured.
Lindsey Hernandez and her children have insurance through Medicaid. But that doesn't mean it's easy or convenient to get health care. At a back-to-school health fair last weekend at St. Petersburg College, four of her children got free physicals. 

"At the doctor's office you've got to wait like a month to get in, and then they'll only take two kids at a time, so you've got to make an appointment and then usually go back the next day or two days later for the other two," Hernandez said. "It's hard to get the kids in for the physicals because the doctor's office is always packed."
Not having reliable transportation can make it even more difficult for Hernandez to make sure her children get the care they need. Car trouble meant they almost didn't make it from Clearwater to the health fair in Pinellas Park. So her friend Lisa Garcia agreed to come along.
"She was afraid she was going to get stranded with kids, she was like come on, come with me just in case," Garcia said. "I'll have somebody to walk with the kids with if that happens, so I said sure, why not?"

According to the Centers for Disease Control, almost 19,000 children in Pinellas County are uninsured. At the health fair in Pinellas Park, it was one-stop shopping for free physicals and immunizations.  

"We have set a new record. We're well over 200. Last year we did 193," said Kenneth Webster of the Pinellas County Osteopathic Medical Society, one of the sponsors of the fair. "But I think the main thing is it's a great service because our doctors volunteer, our nurses, everyone volunteers because they understand that everybody can't afford a doctor's care or physical exams."

At county health departments across Florida, immunizations are available for free. Low-cost physicals are harder to come by if you miss the back-to-school health fairs that are held around the state. Florida students have to get immunizations and a physical to enroll in school.  

According to Sara O'Toole, the managing officer for school health services for Pinellas County Schools, Florida only requires a physical for initial registration. 

"If they started kindergarten in Hillsborough, and they had a physical they presented to the school at kindergarten registration, and then say they moved to Pinellas in the 5th grade, the records would transfer with the student school to school and that physical exam would transfer as well and that would still count as the entry physical," O'Toole said. 

But as a nurse, O'Toole recommends yearly physicals.

"Parents should be taking their children to the physician regularly for checkups and things like that but the state only requires a physical exam for initial entrance to school," O'Toole said. 

Hernandez said the health fair was worth the paperwork and the time. She has five children: 11-year-old Angel, 9-year-old twins Tony and Joel, 7-year-old Catalina and 1-year-old Yazmine. She had to fill out a packet for each child, except for her youngest, who didn't need any care.

It took about two hours for the children to get hearing and vision screenings and a physical exam by a doctor. Hernandez said she didn't find out anything she didn't already know -- but the health fair was still faster than trying to get in at her doctor's office. 

"Medicaid's great, don't get me wrong," Hernandez said. "It's just sometimes it's a hassle because you can't get to doctors that you need to get to."

Lottie Watts covers health and health policy for Health News Florida, now a part of WUSF Public Media. She also produces Florida Matters, WUSF's weekly public affairs show.