Florida limits coronavirus vaccines to permanent, seasonal residents

A new order by the state surgeon general clears up some of the confusion over who can get a shot.
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine are pictured on a table as nurses prepared to vaccinate residents and staff at Gulf Shore Care Center on Dec. 18 in Pinellas Park.
Vials of the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine are pictured on a table as nurses prepared to vaccinate residents and staff at Gulf Shore Care Center on Dec. 18 in Pinellas Park. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Jan. 21, 2021|Updated Jan. 21, 2021

Citing scarce supply, Florida is limiting availability of coronavirus vaccines to state residents, reversing a previous policy of not restricting doses based where a person lives.

The decision, which came Thursday afternoon in a public health advisory from Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees, follows reports of out-of-state and foreign visitors coming to Florida to get shots because of its policy of offering doses to people 65 and older.

According to the advisory, only those who can prove state residency using a state driver’s license or other official documents, such as a deed, rental agreement or utility bill, will be permitted to receive shots.

Out-of-state health care providers who come to Florida to work with patients can also be vaccinated, according to the advisory, which appears to cover snowbirds, or part-time residents who visit the state for months at a time.

The advisory provided clarity many across the state have been looking for about who is eligible to get doses. In recent days, some counties had begun implementing proof of residency restrictions, citing guidance from Gov. Ron DeSantis, while others had not, leading to a patchwork of rules and confusion among visitors and part-time residents alike.

State officials had previously said there were no residency requirements to receive a COVID-19 vaccine in Florida, saying the doses were a “federal asset,” and have downplayed reports of medical tourism related to the vaccines.

As of Wednesday, about 41,000 non-residents had been vaccinated in Florida, although it’s unclear how many of those may be snowbirds. A total of 1.3 million people have been vaccinated in Florida so far, according to state data.

But amid anecdotal stories, particularly in South Florida, of foreigners getting shots, DeSantis has increasingly sought to distinguish between part-time residents and “people who are just visiting.” This week, he made comments that he wanted to put “people who live here first in line.”

As of midday Thursday, officials in both Pinellas and Hillsborough counties said they were not aware of any direction from the state to restrict vaccine doses by residency. But other counties, including Volusia, Manatee and Seminole, announced residency restrictions this week.

The Tampa Bay Times had asked state officials three times for clarity on the issue since Jan. 12, but did not receive a response until Thursday, when the state announced the advisory.

Confusion about the rules left 71-year-old Katherine Graham exhausted. The Tarpon Springs resident had been trying to get a vaccine appointment for her sister, who was set to visit this weekend from Tennessee.

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The Orange County health department, where she scheduled her own vaccine, had told her non-residents could sign up, too, she said. But after seeing news reports about DeSantis’ comments this week, she called again and got a different answer.

“They told me, yes, you have to be a resident,” Graham recalled, adding: “How can they have the rule one way one day, and then all of a sudden the rules have changed and nobody knows why?”

Rivkees’ advisory, timestamped 2:58 p.m. on Thursday, is less than two pages. It sets criteria for how people can prove their residency based on a state statute dealing with medical use of marijuana.

It is not clear why the public health advisory was issued at this point. Just over a week ago, Shamarial Roberson, deputy secretary for health in Florida, told the state Senate Committee on Health Policy that “the federal government has advised that this is a federal asset, so people can come from other states.”

Florida Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon did not respond to a follow-up question about the state’s change in policy on residency requirements.

Dr. Kenneth Goodman, director of the Florida Bioethics Network, questioned how the residency decision could affect access to vaccines to certain groups of Floridians, such as migrant workers, undocumented immigrants or people who are homeless. He also wondered how much of an additional burden this would place on vaccine providers to “start monitoring, collecting and vetting this kind of residency documentation.”

Goodman said he’d like more information about how big a problem Florida was having with non-Floridians getting doses. “I’m hoping Florida’s leadership is contemplating the consequences of these various executive orders,” Goodman said.

While vaccine tourism is controversial, health experts say it’s a good thing that Florida is vaccinating snowbirds because they could transmit the disease to others during their stay or take up the state’s hospital beds if they get sick.

But that requires more vaccine supply, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio stressed in a Jan. 14 letter to federal health officials. It was signed by 17 other members of Florida’s congressional delegation, including Rep. Gus Bilirakis, a Republican from Palm Harbor.

“The state of Florida has committed to vaccinate both residents and non-residents,” the letter read, referring to snowbirds as non-residents. “This has understandably put a strain on the limited allotment.”

Florida does not keep track of the number of snowbirds who visit. But, according to pre-pandemic estimates from University of Florida researcher Richard Doty, Tampa Bay alone welcomes more than 100,000 seasonal visitors a year.

Dr. Sonja Rasmussen, a professor of epidemiology at the University of Florida, said the state shouldn’t be thinking about geography when it comes to vaccines, but about getting shots to as many people as possible, although she doesn’t like the idea of so-called “vaccine tourism.”

“If you’re living here, meet the criteria and are willing to get the vaccine, let’s stick it in your arm,” she said.

Her own parents are snowbirds from the Midwest who got shots this month in South Florida. Both are in their 80s and have underlying conditions, Rasmussen said.

“They pay property taxes, they do spend six months a year,” she said. “They, by all rights, should get a vaccine even though their driver’s license says Minnesota.”

Dan Ward, a 55-year-old in St. Petersburg, understands that logic about snowbirds. Still, he’s been frustrated by reports of people flying to Florida from other countries to get vaccines when his elderly parents, who live in Manatee County, haven’t been able to find an appointment.

“It’s not about nationalism,” Ward said. “It’s about, when does it end? If people know that Florida is the place to go, where does it stop? … Is everybody going to start flocking to Florida?”

He believes DeSantis isn’t turning snowbirds away because the state is desperate for tourism dollars after almost a year in a pandemic that’s canceled events and forced businesses closed. That’s creating an influx of seniors who are eligible for shots while full-time residents of the state, including essential workers, wait, Ward said.

DeSantis himself, while decrying vaccine tourism, has simultaneously celebrated the fact that people are looking for shots in Florida. “We’re obviously doing a good job of getting seniors shots if people are willing to come here from all over the place,” he said at a news conference in Jupiter on Tuesday.

It’s not that simple, though, said John Mosko, a 78-year-old snowbird from Michigan. He and his wife have traveled to Spring Hill each December for 16 years, and they’ve had no luck finding shots there.

The couple came to Florida because it’s what they always do, and to keep their rolling rental — not because they wanted a vaccine, Mosko said. In fact, they came expecting to get in line behind full-time Floridians, and based on their experience so far, still expect to go home without shots.

“I’m mulling over the wisdom of coming here,” Mosko said, noting that the couple’s friends in Michigan have already received their first doses of vaccine.

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