SPRING HILL — Spring Hill resident Sharon Swanson has repeatedly called the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County to schedule an appointment for a COVID-19 vaccine. So far, she hasn’t gotten through.
At 76, Swanson knows she is in a high-risk category for the disease, and she wants to be vaccinated as soon as possible.
But Swanson said she didn’t expect that when the health department phone system buckled under the crush of calls, officials there would reach out to a gated community nearby, the Wellington at Seven Hills, to offer its residents hundreds of vaccine doses.
According to its website, the Wellington at Seven Hills is where “discerning home buyers looking for the perfect 55 and up community can be pampered.”
Health department officials explain their choice by saying they have an established relationship with the 1,100-home community. But, Swanson wondered, “why should relationship count more than fairness?”
“Am I out of luck because I don’t have connections to the health department?” Swanson said.
When asked why the subdivision was chosen for the vaccines, Nina Mattei, the Florida Department of Health in Hernando County’s preparedness and emergency planner, said, “Wellington’s management team and community emergency response team expressed an early willingness” to support a point to dispense vaccinations.
“We selected Wellington for their ability to help organize and run this vaccination outreach as well as having a large population of adults age 65 and over.”
Paul Douglas also questions the choice. As president of the Hernando County chapter of the NAACP, he said Black ministers in South Brooksville have asked for a vaccine clinic in their area, but health officials said that wasn’t how vaccines would be distributed, and that they were already depleted.
“The way that they are approaching this is not surprising,” Douglas said, noting that leaving out the concerns of minority residents is business as usual in Hernando County.
Hernando County commissioners have already begun to hear from constituents, asking why an affluent community like the Wellington should get to go first. But Commission Chairman John Allocco said he has explained the decision was not the county’s to make, since the health department is a state agency.
“I have no idea why they picked the Wellington,” Allocco said. “Hernando County had absolutely zero to do with which community this was given to.”
County fire rescue workers will administer vaccines to the Wellington residents in the coming days, Allocco said. The commission approved offering that assistance, as well as future help with phone lines and appointments.
The Wellington at Seven Hills will receive 648 vaccine doses, out of the 2,000 the health department had initially received. The health department received another 800 doses this week, and additional doses will go to people by appointment.
Former Brooksville Mayor Joe Bernardini said he has been irked by the lack of vaccine planning at all levels of government. “It’s amazing to me that no one was prepared for it,’' he said, adding, “it’s amazing that a community can plan better than the health department.”
Jay Wolfson, professor of public health for the University of South Florida, said he is not surprised at the uneven launch of vaccinations. Not only have health departments across the state seen diminishing resources, but COVID-19 has been an unpredictable enemy. The precautions needed to protect against it becoming a political bargaining chip haven’t helped matters, he said.
“We’re in this together, and it is a team sport even though we’re being told that we’re working against each other,” Wolfson said. “Covid is the enemy here, and to defeat it we have to use discipline, respect for one another and common sense.”
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