Florida’s county-by-county plan to vaccinate its elderly population has created a mass scramble for a limited number of doses, leading to hourslong lines at vaccination sites and overwhelmed county hotlines and websites.
In southwest Florida, the Lee County Department of Health encouraged anyone 65 and older and high-risk frontline health care workers to come to one of seven vaccination sites. Each site had just 300 vaccine doses, and “no appointment is necessary,” the county said.
The first-come, first-serve plan led to huge lines forming overnight Tuesday as people camped out on lawn chairs and waited for hours.
Bruce Scott told CNN he arrived at a Ft. Myers vaccination site at 1:30 a.m. and waited in a line for about 8 or 9 hours to get vaccinated.
“Although I’m grateful to get the vaccine, I feel that there’s got to be a better way to distribute this,” he said afterward. “For people that really need it, elderly that might be disabled in some way, they can’t endure this process, so there’s got to be a better way to manage this.”
The long wait is a preview of what looks to be a tumultuous vaccine rollout and reflects the public’s pent-up demand for vaccines as well as the logistical difficulty in administering them in an orderly way.
The issue is partly a consequence of the lack of consistent federal guidance in administering vaccines, as President Donald Trump deferred that decision-making to the states. In turn, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis broke with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to focus first on vaccinating the elderly rather than essential workers, and he has encouraged each county health department to make its own decisions on administering the vaccines.
Florida is one of the few states that has begun vaccinating people beyond the first wave of health care workers and long-term care facilities. The state has administered over 150,000 vaccines so far, more than all but Texas, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Counties see huge vaccine demand
Other Florida counties have tried to set up vaccination appointments for those who sign up online or through a hotline.
In Orange County, the department of health set up an online portal to make vaccination appointments, and 30,000 appointments were scheduled in the last 24 hours. The county then said it reached capacity and closed its online portal on Wednesday.
Fran Lundell, 70, and her husband, Andy, 73, were among those who successfully signed up, and they were vaccinated after waiting in their cars at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando on Tuesday.
They said they went to the county website to schedule an appointment as soon as it was announced. Fran got an appointment quickly, but it took Andy four or five attempts to get a slot.
“We think we’re lucky,” Fran Lundell said. “We thought maybe March or April we might get it, but this is fantastic to get it, certainly.”
Jim Seltzer, who was also vaccinated Wednesday, praised the job the county did.
“I thought it was very well organized. I thought they did an excellent job,” he said. “I mean, it was a long wait, but you know, I expected that.”
In Palm Beach County, the department of health directed people 65 and older to call an appointment hotline to get their vaccine. But the hotline can only handle 150 calls at a time and was being overwhelmed, the county said.
“We are working on expanding our infrastructure to handle the high demand we are experiencing,” the site said.
And in South Florida, Broward Health said all of its appointments are booked until February.
Mount Sinai Hospital in Miami Beach says they have proactively reached out to the seniors in their community to sign up for the vaccine. They have enabled more appointment phone lines in an effort to prevent seniors for easily accessing the vaccine.
“And so the faster that we’re able to deploy vaccine to the 65 plus year old population, I believe that life will return to normal. And I also believe that younger people will be more receptive to receiving the vaccine as well,” said President and CEO of Mount Sinai Miami Beach Steve Sonenreich.
Focus on elderly over essential workers
Florida is also one of a few states that has bucked the CDC’s recommendations on the order of who should get the vaccine first, prioritizing the elderly over essential workers.
A CDC advisory committee recommended that states first vaccinate frontline health care workers and people in long-term care facilities, and Florida has followed that.
The CDC committee then recommended that states vaccinate people older than 75 and “frontline essential workers” such as first responders in a “Phase 1b.” Afterward, in a “Phase 1c,” states should vaccinate adults ages 65-75, people ages 16-64 with high-risk medical conditions, and “other essential workers,” the committee recommended.
However, DeSantis said the state is prioritizing everyone over age 65, with young essential workers later.
“Our vaccines are going to be targeted for our elderly population,” he said in a news conference last week at UF Health in The Villages, the central Florida community for people older than 55. “As we get into the general community, the vaccines are going to be targeted where the risk is the greatest, and that is in our elderly population. We are not going to put young healthy workers ahead of our elderly vulnerable population.”
The CDC committee’s recommendations represented a compromise between two strains of thought: preventing Covid-19 spread and preventing Covid-19 deaths. People ages 18-64 make up 75% of all coronavirus infections, while people older than 65 make up 81% of all coronavirus deaths, according to CDC data.
“If you’re a 22-year-old working in food services, let’s say at a supermarket, you would have preference over a 74-year-old grandmother,” he said. “I don’t think that that is the direction that we want to go.”