‘Absolute chaos:’ Floridians want coronavirus vaccine answers

Floridians 65 and older are next in line to get the coronavirus vaccine, but it’s unclear how that will happen.
Hundreds of people wait in line Tuesday at the STARS Complex in Fort Myers to receive the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine.
Hundreds of people wait in line Tuesday at the STARS Complex in Fort Myers to receive the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. [ ANDREW WEST/THE NEWS-PRESS | AP ]
Published Dec. 30, 2020|Updated Dec. 30, 2020

Images out of Lee County have already become a national spectacle: Florida seniors swaddled in blankets, camping out in lines overnight outside of testing sites for their chance at receiving a coronavirus vaccine.

After spending most of the year in pandemic purgatory, many Floridians are anxious to get their shot. But the state of Florida has not established a clear distribution plan, leaving it up to each county to figure out how to roll out doses.

The vaccine has already been available to some health care workers, especially those in major hospitals, and first responders. Gov. Ron DeSantis has said that Floridians older than 65 are the next priority. But many have expressed confusion at how or when to get vaccines.

The Tampa Bay Times asked Floridians to share their experiences this week and many expressed confusion and frustration. Their answers, edited for length and clarity, offer a snapshot of the questions still swirling across the state.

Not enough appointments, or information on how to book one

We saw on our phones that you could call the Broward County Health Department for an appointment. We had our daughter, son-in-law, my husband and myself call. My husband finally got through and it was right after the cutoff. In a matter of hours, they were completely full. We’ve been secluded, we’ve done due diligence. So now the vaccine is coming out, but it just seems like you have to win the lottery. We used to have to call in to radio stations to win prizes. That’s how we felt today. And we didn’t win! — Christy McLellan, Boynton Beach, as told to Gabrielle Calise

Related: Pinellas County to vaccinate seniors next week, official says

“It’s absolute chaos in Sarasota County. I talked to the health care department this morning and they said that their limited supply would be given to their front line health care workers (makes sense). I would need to call back in several weeks when they receive a larger supply. Less than five hours later, the health department issued an announcement that they were starting vaccinations for health care staff and people over 65 today but that all appointments were already taken. They gave the process for paperwork needed to get a vaccine as further supplies come in and noted that an appointment is needed, but shared no information about how to get an appointment. What the hell? Can someone please step forward to bring clarity, organization, and equity to the COVID-19 vaccination roll-out? Getting access to a life-saving vaccination (to save one’s own and others’ lives) should not be a cat and mouse game. This is what economically poor people have endured for years in our underfunded public health systems. It’s more dysfunctional and damaging than ever with the stresses brought to bear by COVID —- not to mention politics.” — Christine Maxwell, Sarasota

“300 doses available and 1,000 people in line to get it. First come first serve, no appointments. Nothing but a clusterf--k.” — Rick Feeney, Cape Coral

“I live in downtown St. Pete and have been very proactive in trying to get an appointment for the vaccine. Apparently, there is no plan in place for dispensing the vaccine to 65+; despite the executive order of the governor a week ago. I have called the health department, CVS, hospitals, and my primary care doctor; nobody had any specifics. I watched as appointments were grabbed up in minutes in other counties. All I want to do is get a place in the queue; I too have health issues and like many live alone and am isolated. After hours online, I managed to get an appointment 2 1/2 hours away. Frustration and disquietude best describe how I feel. I would much prefer to get vaccinated in Pinellas County.” — Bonnie Hechtkopf, St. Petersburg

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Many health care workers still not vaccinated

“I am a frontline health care provider working in a large private practice not affiliated with a hospital. I represent a huge population of doctors, ARNP’s, PA’s, and ancillary providers that have been overlooked. We are not even included in essential workers. I contacted the Pinellas County Health Department and was told to follow the media for my age group. I have written Marco Rubio, Governor DeSantis, and Charlie Christ to no avail. I desperately want the vaccine as I am 60 years old and see 30 to 40 unmasked patients a day.” — Lou Ann Heckman, ARNP, St Petersburg

“I called [The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough] and stated ‘I’m a medical doctor in private practice, when can I receive the COVID vaccine?’ I didn’t get a clear answer, was told that nowhere in Hillsborough has received vaccine other than Tampa General Hospital; Long term care and high-risk/high-contact healthcare workers are first, everyone over 65 is next.” —Tazia K. Stagg, M.D., Tampa

“No information on when the vaccine may be available for dentists and hygienists, who are actively treating patients who may be infected and not realize it, even though we are screening. Aerosols are created, and although we wear extensive and proper PPE, the vaccine would give additional security in avoiding the disease. I do endorse front line medical workers who are actively working with COVID patients receiving the vaccine first.” — Steven Bloom, DDS

Others wonder when it will be their turn

“My 95-year-old mother-in-law lives with my wife and I in Indian Rocks Beach. She lived at one of the longterm care facilities that was devastated by COVID. Luckily, she tested negative and we got her out of there. We have been her caregivers since April. Ironically, if she was still in a home, she would be vaccinated. We are not worried about ourselves, though we are actually “caregivers.” Can she get a vaccine?” — Jim Arnold, Indian Rocks Beach

“I am in a very high-risk group — immune-compromised with Idiopathic CD4 Lymphocytopenia and Bronchiectasis. Having both conditions puts me at highest risk per CDC despite my age of 38, yet all vaccine centers so far say they are not vaccinating under 65. My wife and I have tried to call, going down the list. Most places that we find are only vaccinating seniors. It seems kind of a mess. I think it’s disappointing there hasn’t been more structure and organization to the process.” — Jeff Dawson, Hallandale Beach

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Tampa Bay Times coronavirus coverage

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