TAMPA — The vaccine registration website crashed right after it went live Monday morning in Hillsborough County, leaving the phone as the only option. But callers were on hold for hours, cut off mid-conversation or dropped entirely.
And with only 9,000 doses of the coveted vaccine available, those living in Tampa’s most underserved communities never had a prayer. But on Sunday morning, the vaccine came to them.
The Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County administered 500 doses of the coronavirus vaccine to members of St. John Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa’s College Hill neighborhood.
It’s part of an effort by Gov. Ron DeSantis to vaccinate more of the state’s most vulnerable residents by partnering with community centers, churches and other institutions that foster trust.
“We really believe making sure these vaccines are getting into all segments of communities is important and we think working with our houses of worship is one way that we can do that,” DeSantis said Sunday as he announced partnerships with 50 largely Black houses of worship in Tampa, Lynn Haven, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood, Jacksonville, Port St. Lucie and Tallahassee.
St. John’s is one of seven churches where the vaccine will be administered. All the churches will help sign people up for appointments to get a vaccine and help to educate people about why they should get one.
The goal is 500 vaccinations per day at each site for those 65 and older. The state is set to receive 250,000 shots of the two-dose vaccine this week, DeSantis said.
“Regardless of whatever issues are going on in anyone’s life, you can always get to church on Sunday morning,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said Sunday. “So what better location to be able to administer this vaccine, especially to those individuals that may be high risk?”
The initiative comes as DeSantis faces criticism for mixed messages or no message at all about the state’s plan for rolling out the limited number of vaccine doses available. Information his office has released is incomplete and sometimes different from federal data. Questions from reporters for clarity have gone unanswered.
Despite all the complications in Hillsborough last week, health officials distributed 9,000 doses of the vaccine, said Dr. Douglas Holt, director of the Florida Department of Health in the county. They had planned for 1,500.
The extra doses came from Tampa General Hospital, he said — a welcome surprise, but one that revealed the limitations of the county’s coronavirus call center.
The county has hired a new contractor to help field a higher volume of calls, Holt said. He anticipated another 9,000 vaccine doses would be available this week. Where and when has yet to be finalized.
“The vaccine supply still drives everything,” he said. “Rest assured, no vaccine will be left over. If it comes into this county, we’ll be getting it out.”
Since Dec. 27, the day Florida counties received their first shipments of the coronavirus vaccine, Hillsborough County has vaccinated 26,777 people, records show. Of those, 3,869 have received the second shot in the two-dose vaccination.
By Sunday afternoon, health officials had administered the coronavirus vaccine to 558,326 people statewide, and 38,409 of them had completed the two-shot series.
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