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Florida’s surgeon general provides few answers on vaccine rollout

Scott Rivkees, who has been largely absent from the public pandemic response for months, appeared before a state Senate commitee on Wednesday.
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees acknowledged the importance of contact tracing but offered little detail on the state’s long-term plan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens.
Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees acknowledged the importance of contact tracing but offered little detail on the state’s long-term plan on Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. [ DAVID SANTIAGO | Miami Herald ]
Published Jan. 13

TALLAHASSEE — For weeks, Florida’s vaccine rollout has been plagued by confusion, with Gov. Ron DeSantis struggling to explain to seniors and health care workers when and where they’ll be able to get their shots.

On Wednesday, the governor’s hand-picked surgeon general — Florida’s top public health official — made a rare public appearance to answer questions from state lawmakers. But Scott Rivkees was unable to clarify key issues: How long will it take Florida to vaccinate enough people to reach herd immunity in the worst-case scenario? What should senators tell constituents asking when they will be able to schedule a vaccine appointment?

“There is great frustration throughout the entire state over this vaccine distribution,” Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, told Rivkees. “I know there’s a shortage. But I think we can handle a shortage if we understand it and it’s communicated. The frustrating thing is, there hasn’t been any communication.”

Related: 'Sense of fear’: Ex-colleagues warn of DeSantis’ surgeon general pick

Florida is comparable to other large states in its effort to get the life-saving vaccine to its citizens. As of Jan. 11, Florida had given 2.9 percent of its population at least one of the two required shots involved in the available coronavirus vaccinations. That percentage represented the 19th-highest figure among the 50 states, according to a Tampa Bay Times tracker.

Because the federal government is sending weekly shipments of vaccines to the states — and there is no public plan for the amount of vaccine states can expect in a weekly shipment — much of the responsibility for any scarcity falls to federal officials.

Still, Wednesday was yet another example of how top Florida officials have struggled to articulate their vaccination plan. Even after hundreds of thousands of people have gotten shots, the public has yet to get clear directions from the state’s Department of Health.

In October, the department compiled and submitted a vaccination plan to the federal government. That draft, created before it became clear which vaccines would get the go-ahead, was put together before the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended who should get the vaccine first. The plan did not offer detailed information on how vaccines would be doled out to counties, or guidance on when the state would move from one phase of the rollout to the next. For weeks, before and after the vaccines began arriving in Florida, news outlets requested a copy of the state’s final vaccination plan to no avail.

On Wednesday Rivkees said a one-page executive order by DeSantis outlines the state’s strategy.

“Vaccination strategy is what’s covered in the most recent governor’s executive order,” Rivkees said.

But that executive order only lists who is eligible to get the vaccine, not how the state plans to distribute it. Currently, Florida is offering the vaccine to front-line health care workers, people older than 65, staff and residents of long term care facilities and people whom hospitals deem to be “extremely vulnerable” to the virus.

The communication issues have led to widespread confusion. Home Care Association of Florida Executive Director Bobby Lolley told lawmakers that some home health care workers, who should be eligible for the vaccines, have at times been told that they are not.

“Workers are being turned away at vaccine locations because of varying interpretations of the governor’s order,” Lolley said.

Some on the Senate committee downplayed the communication issues. Sen. Jason Brodeur, R-Lake Mary, said he had heard of no home health care workers being turned away from vaccination sites in his district. Sen. Manny Diaz, R-Hialeah Gardens, said top health officials had been communicative with his office throughout the pandemic.

But since the early days of the pandemic, DeSantis has dominated the messaging around Florida’s efforts to combat the coronavirus, eclipsing the state’s health experts. Last April, after suggesting at a news conference Floridians could have to socially distance until a vaccine became available — a prediction that proved true — Rivkees was whisked away by a DeSantis spokeswoman. Since then, Rivkees has seldom appeared before a microphone. He’s taken questions from reporters even less frequently than that.

After he testified to lawmakers, Rivkees told reporters that there were bound to be communication issues.

“It’s very difficult to ask people to be patient during a pandemic.”