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Tampa’s University Mall COVID-19 vaccine site clogged by long lines, seniors turned away

Some seniors reported waiting hours in line at the state-supported vaccination site.
Motorists wait in line to enter a COVID-19 vaccination site at the University Mall parking garage in Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The traffic was backed up for at least one mile onto Fowler Street.
Motorists wait in line to enter a COVID-19 vaccination site at the University Mall parking garage in Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The traffic was backed up for at least one mile onto Fowler Street. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Feb. 11
Updated Feb. 12

TAMPA — Confusion and long lines marred vaccinations Thursday at the state-supported site at University Mall, where people waited for hours and some seniors were turned away before they could get their second dose.

The line of idling cars stretched more than two miles at one point, the latest illustration of how Florida’s vaccine rollout over the past two months has gone awry. The unprecedented logistical challenge to give Floridians access to the vaccines has continuously been hindered by unclear, contradictory or changing distribution plans, poor communication and limited supplies that has led, at times, to chaos.

Thursday’s issues stemmed, in part, from confusion over people showing up for second doses without appointments — although that did not appear to be the only issue causing delays.

The last vaccination was not given until about 8:45 p.m., according to a health department spokesman. About 3,500 people received doses.

The state had to bring on additional staff to work through the evening to make sure everyone with an appointment would get vaccinated, said Samantha Bequer, a spokeswoman with the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

“Individuals who do not have an appointment to receive a COVID-19 vaccine will be asked to return only when they have an appointment,” Bequer said in an email.

The University Mall vaccination site was originally opened by Hillsborough County as one of its vaccine sites but was taken over as a state-supported site three weeks ago. That timing means the first people to get doses from the state-supported version of the site are now starting to return for second doses.

Related: Tampa's University Mall reopens as coronavirus site, state announces

Hillsborough County had previously told residents who had gotten first doses at their vaccine sites that they should return to the same site for their second doses 21 days later, even if they hadn’t gotten confirmation of an appointment, confirmed Kevin Watler, a spokesman with the Hillsborough health department.

But the state’s rules are different.

“Those due for second shots will get vaccinated. We apologize for the confusion and know it is incredibly frustrating,” Watler said. He said there was an “overwhelming” number of individuals showing up without appointments. He said he expects the site will have extended wait times through the weekend.

Bequer said in a statement that people who receive first doses at a state-supported site will receive a call from the state prior to the date listed on their vaccination card so an appointment for a second dose could be scheduled.

Yvonne Yolie Capin, 71, said she never got such a call.

Capin, who served on the Tampa City Council from 2010 to 2019, said she showed up at 9 a.m. at University Mall for her second shot and waited more than three hours before being turned away.

Yvonne Yolie Capin.
Yvonne Yolie Capin.

She’d never gotten a call with an appointment for her second dose and had been unable to reach anyone to make sure she was okay to return Thursday. Her vaccination card had Thursday’s date on it for her second appointment. She said she had read that she should still return 21 days after her first shot even without an appointment.

Yet when Capin finally reached a checkpoint, she was turned away, she said.

“It’s very, very confusing,” she said.

She’s resolved not to return to the University Mall site, even if it means missing out on her second dose and having to start the vaccine process all over again, she said.

By 2 p.m., about 4,000 cars idled in the line for vaccinations. Traffic at some points backed up to a standstill on Fowler Avenue to 56th Street, a county health department official confirmed.

Pamela Hackenberry waited in one of those cars.

The 65-year-old said she had a noon appointment to get her first shot. She showed up half an hour ahead of time after driving from Clearwater Beach.

Yet 2½ hours later, there was still a long line of cars ahead of her.

“I cannot understand why I’m waiting so long,” she said. “This is crazy.”

In a nearby car, Victoria Reynoso, 66, was starting to worry. Her appointment had been for 1 p.m. and she was nowhere near the front of the line. Her air conditioner didn’t work and all she had was a bottle of water. “I’m concerned,” she said.

Valerie Pyles, 72, and her husband, Denzel Rogers, 74, had been waiting even longer. They said around 2:30 p.m. that they’d been waiting in line for six hours for appointments scheduled at 9:45 a.m. and 10:45 a.m. Pyles needs oxygen and she was beginning to worry about how much longer the wait would be.

At 4 p.m., police vehicles blocked some of the entrances to keep more cars from showing up to the vaccine site.

From their spot in line far from the vaccination check-in area, Al Larcher and his wife Michele, both 76 and from Sun City Center, continued their long wait. They’d been in line since shortly before their 10 a.m. appointment time. Lunch had been an apple and peanut butter crackers. They used the restrooms in a Fowler Avenue gas station while waiting in the line of cars on the road.

People wait in line to use portable bathroom stalls during their wait to enter a COVID-19 vaccination site at the University Mall parking garage in Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The traffic was backed up for at least one mile onto Fowler Street.
People wait in line to use portable bathroom stalls during their wait to enter a COVID-19 vaccination site at the University Mall parking garage in Tampa on Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021. The traffic was backed up for at least one mile onto Fowler Street. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]

As of Thursday, more than 102,000 Hillsborough residents had gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, according to state data. Not all those doses came from the University Mall site.

The county has reported more than 105,000 coronavirus cases to date and more than 1,400 deaths.

Bequer said people who are past the date listed on their vaccination card for a second dose who have not been contacted about setting up a second appointment should go to myvaccine.fl.gov, fill out their contact information and select the drop-down menu option that says, “No, I am seeking a second dose” under the question about whether the user is looking for a first dose.

“The state is working to schedule second-dose appointments as quickly as possible and we ask for individuals to remain patient during this time,” Bequer said.

Times correspondent William March contributed to this report.

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