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Pinellas nursing homes to receive first doses of coronavirus vaccine, likely next week

With FDA set to approve vaccine, Gov. Ron DeSantis announces pilot vaccination program for long-term care facilities in Pinellas and Broward counties.
Published Dec. 11, 2020
Updated Dec. 12, 2020

UPDATE: The Food and Drug Administration late Friday authorized an emergency rollout of the nation’s first COVID-19 vaccine.

TAMPA — Residents and caregivers at Pinellas County long-term care facilities will be among Florida’s first recipients of the coronavirus vaccine as the state looks to protect its most vulnerable citizens from the state’s rising coronavirus infections, Gov. Ron DeSantis said on Friday.

Pinellas and Broward counties have been chosen as pilot sites for the vaccine developed by Pfizer-BioNTech. Strike teams set up by the state to administer the vaccine in the next few weeks have been allocated about 21,000 doses, with Pinellas set to receive about half, according to Pinellas County health officials.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration was expected to approve the vaccine — which is already being administered in the United Kingdom — by the end of Friday.

“The arrival of the first doses of COVID-19 vaccines in Pinellas gives us another way to protect the most vulnerable Pinellas residents and health-care workers who have been hard hit by the pandemic, as well as those who provide their care,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County in a statement. “We are honored to be one of the first two Florida counties to begin the vaccination effort in the state.”

Meanwhile, Tampa General Hospital, one of five hospitals in Florida chosen to store and distribute the vaccine, is expecting to receive doses of the Pfizer two-dose COVID-19 vaccine this week or next, hospital officials announced Friday. Those will be distributed to health-care workers battling COVID-19 on the front lines.

“This vaccine provides hope to our community, and Tampa General is honored to support this pilot program,” said John Couris, president and CEO of Tampa General Hospital, in a statement.

DeSantis said the arrival of the vaccine will mark the turning of the tide in the battle against the pandemic. Florida will initially get about 180,000 doses of the vaccine.

Roughly 60,000 doses will be given to CVS and Walgreens, whose employees will administer the vaccine in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in other parts of Florida. About 97,500 doses will be shared among the five hospitals.

After nursing homes and frontline healthcare workers, the next priority would be Florida’s general elderly population.

“That’s where most of the risk is, and if we’re able to do that, that is going to really, really help reduce mortality,” said DeSantis, who discussed the virus rollout Friday morning at a mental health roundtable held at the Tampa Firefighter’s Museum.

Members of law enforcement, firefighters, other first-responders and teachers also will be a priority as Florida receives more doses, DeSantis said. He previously said he expects the state to receive between 1 million and 2 million doses in the first month. The number of vaccines available to Florida will increase more quickly once other vaccines, such as one developed by Moderna, are approved for use, he said.

“We’re going to fight for as much as we can get,” he said.

Pinellas County will get roughly 10,700 vaccine doses for the strike teams to get to long-term care facilities in the first round, said Tom Iovino, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County.

The goal is to get the first dose to as many people as possible, he said, with the idea that second doses would come in future shipments. The health department is reaching out to facilities to get a sense of demand and to decide where the strike teams will go first, Iovino said

The plan is for the doses, which must be kept at around -112 degrees Fahrenheit to maintain maximum effectiveness, to be stored at the Department of Health’s state laboratory in Tampa.

Florida recently surpassed 1 million known cases of the coronavirus and likely will surpass 20,000 deaths in a matter of days.

Coronavirus-related deaths in long-term care facilities make up nearly 40 percent of those fatalities. Facilities in Pinellas County alone have seen 774 deaths among residents and staff to date.

That includes a deadly outbreak at the Freedom Square of Seminole retirement community, which was detailed in a recent Tampa Bay Times investigation.

Related: How did the coronavirus overwhelm a Seminole nursing home so quickly?

The vaccine is set to arrive as Florida is seeing an uptick in coronavirus-related deaths as case numbers continue to tick upward this holiday season. In the first week of December, the state saw an average death toll of about 100 per day. That’s double the rate of deaths from a month ago.

DeSantis said he is concerned about studies that show a high number of Americans are skeptical about getting vaccinated.

A recent study from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found that about a quarter of U.S. adults aren’t sure if they want to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Roughly another quarter said they definitely would not.

The governor said he is open to running a statewide campaign to encourage Floridians to get vaccinated, but said that hospital systems may be the best messengers, as they are more trusted by people.

He said public confidence hasn’t been helped by some messaging, such as the closing down of children’s playgrounds in some communities and a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory that staying with family over the holidays could increase the risk of coronavirus transmission.

“I would never tell anyone not to see their family,” DeSantis said. “I thought that was totally, totally overboard when you had some of these public health bureaucrats saying that.”

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