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Confusion continues with Florida’s new vaccine website

Many counties and providers are not using the site, causing frustration. “It can feel like another dead end.”
Debbie Vanderkuip, center, and her husband, Rick Vanderkuip, right, check in with nurse Trina Owens at the Clearwater Health Department early last month. The seniors, from Niagra Falls, Canada, were seeking appointments to receive a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as part of the Pinellas County health department's distribution plan. So far, the department has elected not to be part of a statewide online registration system launched at the end of January.
Debbie Vanderkuip, center, and her husband, Rick Vanderkuip, right, check in with nurse Trina Owens at the Clearwater Health Department early last month. The seniors, from Niagra Falls, Canada, were seeking appointments to receive a first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine as part of the Pinellas County health department's distribution plan. So far, the department has elected not to be part of a statewide online registration system launched at the end of January. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Feb. 4, 2021|Updated Feb. 4, 2021

Following more than a month of confusion over how to score an appointment for a coronavirus vaccine, Florida last week unveiled a new statewide pre-registration system that seemed like a solution to cut down on the chaos.

The state said eligible residents could pre-register for vaccine appointments and be notified when appointments are available in their area.

Not mentioned in the press release about the site’s launch was that counties could choose whether or not to use the system — and that, at least for now, many are opting against doing so.

The result, at least in the short term, has been more confusion as eligible Floridians continue to face a hodgepodge of different sign-up systems depending on where they live and what providers are in their area.

Some counties said they were caught off-guard by the state’s announcement of the new system Friday. And some of those that have opted out have said the state launched before having all the kinks worked out.

In Tampa Bay, the health departments in Pinellas, Pasco and Hernando all say they are continuing to use their current registration systems rather than opting into the statewide one. Publix also said it was continuing with its online registration system to reserve appointments.

Kathy Murphy, 75, didn’t know all this when she added her name to the state’s portal. So the St. Petersburg resident was confused when she saw news that vaccine appointments would be available this week at Publix locations in Pinellas County but she didn’t get any notification from the state site.

She said she’s frustrated and tired of having to continue fruitlessly searching for a vaccine appointment. On Wednesday morning, as she watched the number of available slots quickly disappear on the Publix site, she stared at her computer and started to cry.

The state’s announcement of the pre-registration portal had been such good news to her. But after she learned that it wasn’t being used in Pinellas yet, she said she felt deflated.

“They pull the air out of you,” she said.

A state spokesman did not reply to emailed questions this week asking which providers in which counties were currently using the site or what happens if someone pre-registers in multiple counties.

Related: Florida residents who want a vaccine can now pre-register online, save their spot

Some counties, including Hillsborough, have confirmed they are using the new state system — and some residents signing up there have said they’ve had luck getting appointments.

Carrollwood resident Cindy Tozier, 69, registered on the state’s site when it came online Friday, she said. A man called her Monday evening, asking what date and time she would like to be vaccinated at Tampa’s University Square Mall, where the state runs a vaccine site.

“I had a wonderful experience,” she said. “That’s after having horrible experiences. … I was absolutely blown away.”

Other counties that have not yet signed on have said they may do so later. Some have said they prefer their current registration processes; others have specifically noted concerns with the state’s system.

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Seminole County got a chance to test out the state’s system weeks before it went live and found a number of issues, said county emergency manager Alan Harris.

Those problems weren’t fixed by the time the state announced its launch, Harris said, although he added that he’s been in conversations with the state in recent days to work through the issues his team noted.

Among the issues Seminole said it had: There was no way for the county to see a full list of people registering through the state site or to know exactly how many people in the county had used the system.

In addition, Harris said people could choose to sign up with multiple counties, leaving the system to have to work through that. And the scheduling process was rigid and didn’t allow for the flexibility to contact people for pop-up or mobile sites in different parts of the county.

“When everything is fixed, we would love to be a participant,” Harris said. “Our county has gone through enough piloting and being the first and fighting through the bugs. We’re going to let the other counties figure it out.”

The state announced the new website before it was able to set up many counties to use the system, Volusia County spokeswoman Kate Sark wrote in a news release. That’s why “only a handful” are currently using it, she said, adding that her county is now working with the state to transition to the new site.

“We recognize that the state’s announcement has created frustration and ask for the public’s patience,” Sark wrote. “Feedback from the counties currently using the system is mixed, and we want to ensure that when the change is made, the process is the most convenient and efficient option for residents.”

Atop confusion about which counties are even using the site, there are questions about who is eligible to use it to sign up for shots. The new system has particularly caused confusion among those who are considered extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 due to pre-existing medical conditions.

The site’s homepage implies that they could get appointments there, just like health care workers, long-term care facility residents and people 65 and older. But that hasn’t been the case, patients and advocates say.

James Stevens, a 63-year-old living with high blood pressure, heart disease and mild COPD in Hillsborough, said he tried to sign up for an appointment the day the site debuted. “It got my hopes up,” he said. “I thought, that’s me.”

But once he filled out his information, the site told him he wasn’t yet eligible for a shot, he said. The registration page asks for the user’s birthday and whether they are a health care worker, but not about medical conditions.

“People from the outside think people with preexisting conditions can get it, but they can’t,” Stevens said. “Even though they say that you’re able to register as a person with preexisting conditions, they have no mechanism for doing it.”

The ALS Association Florida Chapter, an advocacy group for people living with Lou Gehrig’s disease, has received plenty of frustrated emails from members looking for shots, said spokeswoman Stephanie Oliva. Many have been homebound through the pandemic because the disease weakens the immune system, putting ALS patients at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.

“They’re looking for guidance from the state and looking for glimmers of hope to get the vaccine and start living life again,” Oliva said. “There is a lot of frustration. … They are getting mixed messaging.”

The Down Syndrome Association of Tampa Bay also is struggling with how to help its members, said director Craig Woodard. He and other advocates in the state are in the process of contacting state lawmakers to stress the Down Syndrome community’s need for vaccines.

“I was hoping that this was going to be the time when not only would we be able to have quicker access, but we would have better information about the access,” Woodard said. “But to be honest … I have as much information today as three months ago. The process just has not streamlined out to people.”

Jason Salemi, an epidemiologist at the University of South Florida, said that any efforts to make the vaccination process simpler are a good thing.

But he added that, if people are given the impression they can sign up and register through a site when they can’t, “it can feel like another dead end, and frustrates people.”

The new site is the state’s attempt to remedy the patchwork of registration systems across the state, said Jay Wolfson, a professor of public health at the University of South Florida.

“This is a transition period,” he said, adding that Florida, which has historically underfunded public health, did not originally have the infrastructure to raise up a statewide registration system, so it is “building it now.”

While there’s value in having a state-run site, Wolfson said, the lack of communication surrounding it has only compounded confusion that’s existed throughout Florida’s vaccine rollout. “People just don’t know what’s happening,” he said.

That makes it paramount that counties work to get on board with the state site rather than push against the new site, even if fixes take several weeks. Streamlining the distribution process can only help — both officials and the public, Wolfson said.

“The goal is to have a system that works,” he added.

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