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Florida starts conversion of testing sites as vaccine demand surges

The stadium will be the first state-run COVID-19 testing location in Miami-Dade that will convert into a site where seniors and front-line healthcare workers can get vaccinated.
A National Guard troop directs cars as a citizens is being tested by a healthcare workers at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens as the coronavirus pandemic continues on Sunday, July 19, 2020.
A National Guard troop directs cars as a citizens is being tested by a healthcare workers at the COVID-19 drive-thru testing center at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens as the coronavirus pandemic continues on Sunday, July 19, 2020. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 6
Updated Jan. 7

MIAMI GARDENS — As the demand for shots of the COVID-19 vaccine swells in South Florida, the state is moving to convert churches and testing sites into vaccination locations to expand access for those 65 and older. Seniors, though, continue to struggle for access to the vaccines during a bumpy rollout.

Gov. Ron DeSantis held a news conference at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens on Wednesday to announce that the stadium testing site would become a new location for vaccines. But even before DeSantis spoke, first responders and people 65 and over were getting the shots there.

Local fire chiefs had identified people and invited them to the vaccination site, according to Valeria Pete, a public affairs officer for the Florida National Guard, in what DeSantis termed a “soft opening” for the Hard Rock site that is expected to last several days.

There was no public portal available for seniors to register for vaccinations at the Hard Rock on Wednesday. More first responders and seniors will be invited to receive the vaccine there on Thursday.

On Wednesday, participants drove into the two-lane vaccination tent to receive the shot, then were instructed to pull off to the side and wait for 15 minutes for monitoring of any symptoms, as advised by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Eventually the site will ramp up to administering 1,000 vaccines a day, DeSantis said. But for now, the site is invite-only.

“We don’t want to sign people up and not be able to deliver vaccines,” he said.

Because the testing site is now shared with the vaccine lanes, capacity for testing will be decreased. DeSantis said the site may become vaccine-only eventually. The tests could be deployed elsewhere, he said.

“If you’re 65-plus or a front-line healthcare worker and you don’t have symptoms, you’re better off getting the vaccine anyway,” he said.

The stadium will be the first state-run COVID-19 testing location in Miami-Dade to convert into a site where seniors and front-line healthcare workers can get vaccinated. Marlins Park in Miami — a state-run testing location — is also in the process of being converted into a vaccination site, according to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez.

Broward County’s Holiday Park, another state-run testing site, is set to close its testing completely and open as a vaccination site Thursday.

DeSantis’ office confirmed to the Miami Herald on Tuesday evening that the Miami-Dade site will be the first of several state-supported testing sites that will become vaccination locations in the near future.

“Miami Hard Rock is the first site for this new initiative as the governor and his administration continue with proactive efforts to ensure the vaccine is administered as quickly as possible,” DeSantis spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice said in a statement.

Jackson Health CEO Carlos Migoya said at a news conference Tuesday that he expected the Hard Rock to be the first of three drive-up sites in Miami-Dade County, capable of vaccinating 10,000 people every week, for a total of 30,000 doses administered every seven days.

“We’re working to get two other sites done in the next week to 10 days,” Migoya said

Confusion in Broward and beyond

Seniors and their families continued to battle confusing directions to get the vaccine, weeks into the rollout. One Boca Raton man, Joe McManus, said he got a call from the Broward County Health Department Tuesday saying his wife’s appointment to receive the COVID-19 vaccine at Vista View Park in Davie was now in a new location.

But his daughter, Catherine, told the Herald that her 89-year-old father doesn’t remember where his wife Barbara, who is 92, is supposed to go.

The department tweeted Wednesday that people who received a “text message or voicemail” should go to the new location on the new date, at the original appointment time. But Catherine, who made the appointment for her mother, said they didn’t receive a text, only a call, and she now doesn’t know where to go to get her mother vaccinated.

Her father was vaccinated at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on Wednesday.

Hundreds of others looking to get vaccinated submitted comments to a Miami Herald tip line, complaining of unclear directions, busy phone lines and appointment schedules that are booked up for weeks.

Laura Viner, 66, and her husband, a physician, scheduled an appointment through Jackson Health System on Tuesday morning, but when they showed up Wednesday, their name wasn’t on the list and they were turned away. Viner lost her stepfather to COVID-19 Sunday.

“We were devastated,” Viner wrote in an email to the Miami Herald. “I know how it can ravage and kill a person in a week’s time.”

Calls for more vaccine transparency

As the confusion continued Wednesday, AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson urged the governor and local officials to be more transparent about the availability and distribution of vaccines throughout the state.

“Too many older people are frustrated by their inability to understand when and where they can get vaccinated,’' Johnson said. “And in some communities, a long history of systemic discrimination has left trust in tatters. This is jeopardizing the effectiveness of a brilliant scientific success in developing the vaccines.”

He called the state to publicize a “clear and easy-to-understand schedule of vaccine administration for all populations; and, the process by which individuals may seek and obtain a vaccine.”

AARP also wants better disclosure of the data the state is already collecting. For example, the organization wants the numbers and percentages of older Floridians who have been vaccinated to be available by both race and ethnicity. And the group wants a public accounting of vaccinations at every long-term care facility, detailing how many have received their first and second doses of vaccines.

He said that while the AARP appreciates the governor’s effort to prioritize vaccinations for Floridians age 65-plus as well as residents of elder-care facilities, “we are hearing very strong concerns from our members and all older Floridians.”

“It is important for elected leaders at all levels of government, as well as our healthcare institutions, to be transparent and responsive to these concerns,’' he said.