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Vaccines are in Tampa Bay. Who gets them and when?

Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to release Florida’s final distribution plan. But here’s what local experts, doctors and emergency response officials expect.
A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech sits near a nurse preparing to administer the medicine to health care workers at AdventHealth Tampa on Wednesday. The hospital got its initial doses from Tampa General Hospital but expects to receive its own shipments of the vaccine later in the process.
A vial of the COVID-19 vaccine from Pfizer and BioNTech sits near a nurse preparing to administer the medicine to health care workers at AdventHealth Tampa on Wednesday. The hospital got its initial doses from Tampa General Hospital but expects to receive its own shipments of the vaccine later in the process. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Dec. 16, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

Now that coronavirus vaccines are in Tampa Bay, residents across the region are eager to find out when they might get theirs.

It’s clear that health care workers and those living and working in long-term care facilities will get access to the drugs first. But what comes next is largely unknown as Gov. Ron DeSantis has yet to make public the state’s official distribution plan.

Using clues from a draft plan released by the state in October, the Tampa Bay Times spoke with local hospital administrators, doctors and emergency response officials to piece together what the region’s residents should expect in the coming weeks and months.

Florida was set to receive about 180,000 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine this week, most of which are slated for health care workers. About 80,000 are expected to go to residents and staff at long-term care facilities.

Hundreds of thousands more doses could arrive in the state by next week, once a second coronavirus vaccine developed by Moderna is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, DeSantis said this week. He expects between 700,000 and 1 million to have landed in Florida by the end of this month.

Here’s what we know about how and when they might be distributed:

Hospitals and health care workers

Tampa General Hospital received 19,500 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine on Monday and started vaccinating its staff within hours of the delivery. It was transporting vials to other hospitals by Wednesday.

Tampa General, the largest hospital in Tampa Bay and one of five in Florida to receive vaccines first, will continue distributing doses to other local hospitals as needed, said CEO and president John Couris. It will stop as facilities begin to get their own shipments.

Administrators at Moffitt Cancer Center, AdventHealth Tampa, BayCare Health System and HCA Healthcare all said their companies are prepared to store their own shipments. Only AdventHealth Tampa said it’s been notified that it’s on a list to receive vaccines directly from the state, but did not specify when that will happen.

The hospital was up first for a delivery from Tampa General on Wednesday, holding a vaccination clinic for about 300 staff members “at highest risk of exposure to COVID-19″ starting at 10:30 a.m. The largest of AdventHealth’s seven facilities in Tampa Bay, the hospital expects to get enough doses from Tampa General to vaccinate “several hundred more per day” in the coming days and weeks.

Robin McGuinness, senior executive officer of patient outcomes, declined to share results of an internal survey asking AdventHealth Tampa’s employees about their willingness to take the vaccine. She did say, however, that distribution of interest “is almost a perfect bell curve of people on both ends of the spectrum, and a lot of people in the middle.”

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She noted trends in the results. Those most interested in being vaccinated were physicians. Those more undecided were nurses, respiratory therapists and others in clinical roles. Nursing assistants and phlebotomists were among those who were “a little more hesitant,” McGuinness said.

Moffitt and BayCare hospitals will receive vaccines from Tampa General on Thursday, administrators said. Moffitt expects to receive about 500 doses and planned to conduct a “dry run” of its vaccination plans on Wednesday, said chief medical officer Dr. Robert Keenan.

BayCare, which operates 15 hospitals in and around Tampa Bay, is set to receive nearly a quarter of Tampa General’s 19,500 doses, said Kyle Barr, senior vice president and chief team resources officer. The hospital system is in the process of scheduling vaccinations for Thursday’s clinic at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Tampa, and it will hold more clinics at other locations over the coming weeks.

In addition, 11 BayCare hospitals are set to receive vaccines by Moderna next week, once the drug is approved by the Food and Drug Administration, the hospital announced Wednesday. They include St. Anthony’s, Morton Plant, Mease Countryside, Mease Dunedin, Morton Plant North Bay, St. Joseph’s, St. Joseph’s Hospital North, St. Joseph’s Hospital South, South Florida Baptist, Bartow Regional and Winter Haven Hospital.

BayCare surveyed its employees and administrators are in the process of compiling results, Barr said, declining to share any results. “I think our team members are excited about the vaccination and are looking forward to it.”

Moffitt sent a survey to its staff about a week ago, and nearly 60 percent of the 7,000 respondents said they wanted to receive the vaccine, Keenan said. He declined to discuss trends in the results.

Bayfront St. Petersburg will start vaccinations Friday, then resume for more on Tuesday, the hospital said. It expects to administer about 400 doses supplied by Tampa General, starting first with those at high-risk of contracting COVID-19 at work.

HCA, which operates 15 hospitals in and around Tampa Bay, also starts vaccinating employees Friday, said chief medical officer Dr. Larry Feinman. It will hold clinics at Brandon Regional Hospital on Friday and Monday, as well as at Northside Hospital in St. Petersburg on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Bayfront declined to provide results of its survey asking employees whether they want the vaccine. HCA said 78 percent of about 2,700 respondents said they intend to get it.

The hospital system is encouraging it “like crazy,” Feinman said. “I am certainly hoping that a majority of our caregivers lead the way out of this crisis by getting themselves vaccinated.”

Long-term care facilities and nursing homes

Pinellas County administered its first vaccines to residents and staff of nursing homes on Wednesday, visiting 13 facilities that are among the first in Florida to get access to drugs.

The health department broadcast a couple vaccinations online from Carrington Place of St. Pete. One went to 79-year-old resident Teresita Villanueva, and another went to Chris Riggs, the center’s administrator.

“This is a great moment for our brave and dedicated staff here at the Carrington that have worked so hard through all this,” said R.B. Bridges, CEO of Traditions Senior Management, which manages Carrington Place. “And we’re just grateful that our residents that have also been through so much this year are able to get this critical vaccine as early as possible.”

At a news conference Wednesday, Pinellas health department director Dr. Ulyee Choe said vaccines will make their way to the rest of the county’s 68 nursing homes over the next five days. Attention will then turn to long-term care and assisted living facilities.

“I did have an opportunity to visit a few of the sites this morning and was impressed by how smoothly things were going,” Choe said.

By Wednesday morning, the Pinellas health department had received about 10,700 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, said spokesman Tom Iovino. Some facilities are still working to get residents’ consent forms properly filled out. Some must have a family member consent if they’re unable to do so on their own.

Police, firefighters and other first responders

In the state’s October draft plan, first responders were included with hospital workers and long-term care staff and residents as being in the first wave of people who would have access to the vaccine. But local officials said they don’t know when that may be.

Choe said at Wednesday’s news conference that he didn’t know the timetable but that first responders are in the state’s “priority phase 1 group” and should have access to the drugs “hopefully sometime in the near future.”

St. Pete Fire Rescue Division Chief Ian Womack said it was his understanding that first responders are in line after hospital workers and long-term care facility residents and staff.

“I don’t have a good sense on what the timeline will be because there’s just a lot of things in flux right now,” he said. “Even at this stage there are more unknowns than knowns.”

That includes whether all first responders — emergency medical workers, firefighters and law enforcement officers — will get access to the vaccine at the same time, or if there will be prioritization among them.

“We haven’t received any information at all on when the vaccine will be available for police,” St. Petersburg police spokeswoman Yolanda Fernandez said Wednesday.

Clearwater police chief Dan Slaughter said his agency has “no definitive info,” just a sense that officers will get the vaccine sometime in the spring.

It’s the same in Hillsborough County, said Sheriff Office spokeswoman Crystal Clark. It’s too soon to say when the office will be able to administer vaccines to its staff, she said.

When it does, the office’s Occupational Health and Wellness Clinic will distribute doses based on “risk stratification,” Clark said. “Deputies in our detention facilities, who have first-hand contact with both inmates and the public, will be prioritized, followed by patrol deputies.”

There are plenty of logistics for emergency response administrators to consider about how the vaccines are rolled out to staff. For example, how much will vaccine side effects — which can include fever, chills, headache, fatigue and soreness at the injection site — impact a responder’s ability to work?

Agencies will likely have to stagger vaccinations to ensure they’re still prepared to respond to emergencies if multiple employees are out sick with side effects, Womack said.

Pinellas County Sheriff Bob Gualtieri said that, of his roughly 1,500 sworn law enforcement officers, jail and patrol deputies will get first priority because they have so much contact with others. But he, like others, doesn’t know when that will happen.

“They haven’t told us anything,” he said. “It’s like so much else with this — there’s very little information.”

Seniors and those at high risk who live independently

Federal health officials as well as DeSantis have said people 65 and older as well as those with significant comorbidities will be prioritized before the general public. But that’s likely still several weeks, if not months, away.

Multiple primary care physicians working in Tampa Bay said they aren’t scheduling vaccine appointments with their patients right now, even for dates far in the future.

Doctors with AdventHealth are hoping to start vaccinating patients sometime in the spring, said spokeswoman Ashley Jeffrey. The health care system is currently focused on educating and vaccinating people working within its hospitals, and it’s holding back on messaging to the general public, so as not to cause confusion.

Primary care physicians at University of South Florida Health also are not yet scheduling appointments for the public, said spokeswoman Sarah Worth. Doctors there said they cannot do so with confidence because the vaccine supply is low and uncertain.

“It’s a little too forward thinking,” said Dr. Brett Levine, an independent primary care physician out of St. Petersburg, adding that he can’t see how or why doctors like himself would be scheduling vaccination appointments for their patients at this point. Most don’t even have the capability to store them at the extremely cold temperatures they require, he said.

Instead, Levine is spending his time educating patients about early studies on the vaccines, and sharing that he and his loved ones plan to take it. He’s gotten a call or two from patients asking about their own vaccination, and he simply tells them his office is still waiting in line. He hopes to get a vaccine for himself by the end of the year, but even that is uncertain.

Staff writer Tony Marrero contributed to this report.

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