Walmart temporarily opened appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations to medically vulnerable Floridians younger than 65 this week, giving hope to residents with pre-existing conditions seeking access to the shots.
But the move was in error, the retailer acknowledged, and served to further highlight Florida’s continuing struggle to communicate with the public important details about its pandemic response weeks into the vaccine rollout.
Walmart said it followed what it thought were the Florida Department of Health guidelines based on how they appear on the agency’s website when it began taking appointments in advance of its own rollout Friday.
A Department of Health spokesman said those with with preexisting conditions must seek vaccines through a hospital or doctor.
“These people should not be vaccinated by Walmart or Winn-Dixie,” Department of Health spokesman Jason Mahon said in a statement late Thursday. “We encourage these entities to work with local hospital providers to provide the vaccine to these individuals.”
The Arkansas-based retailer said it plans to honor any reservations that were already made, but will cease offering new appointments to those with pre-existing conditions younger than 65.
“Walmart is working to align our scheduling system with the specific populations the state has asked us to vaccinate under the federal retail pharmacy partnership,” Walmart said in a statement issued after reporters asked questions Thursday.
That briefly left some who had booked appointment anxious.
“As we found everything had changed, my heart just sank,” said Curt Bigelow, 59, of Orlando.
He has diabetes and stents in his heart. He landed one of the Walmart appointments while they were open to those with underlying conditions.
Gov. Ron DeSantis early on prioritized getting vaccines to Floridians aged 65 and older as well as to frontline health care providers and to residents and staff of long-term care facilities. A December executive order he issued also said that hospital providers could vaccinate people younger than 65 who they deem to be “extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”
But the website Walmart and others referenced — floridahealthcovid19.gov — says only that people “deemed extremely vulnerable to COVID-19 by hospital providers” are eligible without stating a hospital physician must be the one to administer it.
This is not the first time there’s been confusion about how medically vulnerable Floridians can sign up for COVID-19 vaccines. When the state earlier this month launched a new website for people to pre-register for vaccine appointments, the site’s homepage had confusing language that made it seem as though medically vulnerable Floridians could use it to sign up for appointments.
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Bigelow said he’d searched fruitlessly for weeks for a way to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He said his doctor told him that he’d be “a goner” if he ever got coronavirus.
When he heard from a state representative’s office that Walmart was opening appointments for people like him, he jumped at the chance to sign up. He’s glad Walmart is going to honor his appointment on Tuesday but worries for others with medical conditions who didn’t snag a spot.
DeSantis has made it clear that he thinks hospitals and physicians should be the ones deciding which people should be deemed medically vulnerable and able to get some of the still-limited supplies of vaccines. He has made moves in recent weeks to set aside limited numbers of doses for hospitals to vaccinate this population.
As of this week, 10 Walmart and Sam’s Club locations began offering COVID-19 shots in the four-county Tampa Bay area.
As an increasing number of pharmacies start providing COVID-19 doses, they’ve been tasked with figuring out how they can reasonably verify eligibility as they vaccinate people every 30 minutes or fewer.
The state now requires proof of Florida residency in order for people to get shots, but doesn’t have other requirements such as proof of employment for vaccinating health care workers under 65.
That’s how Michael Muscarella, 57‚ unknowingly slipped through the cracks and was vaccinated this week. He said he thought he and his wife were eligible because of their medical conditions when they signed up on Winn-Dixie’s appointment. When they checked a box in the online portal to say they were eligible to get the vaccine, they did not realize Winn-Dixie’s system assumed they were health care workers.
The Seminole man has Type 2 diabetes; his wife is a cancer survivor who just completed radiation.
In the excitement, they didn’t closely read the disclaimers that said they had to be older than 65 or a health care worker or long-term care staffer to get a shot. So on Thursday, he became one of the first in Tampa Bay to get a vaccine from a Winn-Dixie pharmacy.
After the Apollo Beach store’s pharmacist finished the injection, Muscarella spoke to a gaggle of reporters.
“I feel great,” he said. “I hardly felt it. Hardly a little prick at all.”
It wasn’t until a reporter contacted him Friday that he learned that he should not have been eligible to get his dose from the store. He said had the portal had a drop-down menu where he could specify which category he fit into, the mistake would never have happened. When he went back and read the state’s website regarding eligibility and got caught up on the same wording that Walmart did.
“It still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said.
Winn-Dixie, which asks users to check a disclaimer on their appointment portal that they are eligible for a vaccine, acknowledged the struggle to verify eligibility without creating an excessive burden on its pharmacists and slowing vaccinations. The company will be adapting its processes as needed, spokesman Joe Caldwell said.
For now, DeSantis has said his focus remains on the state’s sizeable population of senior citizens.
“We will move on when we’ve done right by the seniors,” DeSantis said this week.
Staff writer Allison Ross contributed to this report.
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