Soon after coronavirus vaccines arrived at the Brooksville Publix store last month, employee Rose Landis was manning the check-in table.
“This is the light at the end of the tunnel,” she told seniors as they awaited shots, expecting that as an essential worker who spends lots of time face-to-face with strangers, she would soon have access, too.
Landis, 21, finally asked her boss when she would be vaccinated. The store’s pharmacists already had been, she said. But the manager told her he had no idea, and as of this week, there was still no word.
Florida is the only state that hasn’t told its residents who will get shots next, when more doses are available, according to an analysis of state rollouts by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on national health issues. Instead, Gov. Ron DeSantis has been laser-focused on vaccinating seniors, telling other groups to wait their turn.
“Most states are providing information,” said Jen Kates, Kaiser’s vice president. “Maybe they haven’t put it out for all phases, but at least for the next phase coming up. All but one state, and that’s Florida.”
No clear statement on who’s next in line
DeSantis said at a Miami area news conference Tuesday that sworn law enforcement officers and classroom teachers will get access to vaccines next, when the Federal Emergency Management Agency opens new vaccination sites in Florida on March 3. But the statement, like many made by DeSantis through the pandemic, was non-specific — and his staff rarely responds to follow-up questions seeking more details.
“Because we have these extra doses … we want that to be open not just to seniors, but to sworn law enforcement and classroom teachers,” the governor told reporters Tuesday. “We’ll start with probably 50 and up.”
The lack of clear messaging has left millions of essential workers confused about when they might have access to vaccines. Neither they nor other groups recommended as key for vaccination by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — like those younger than 65 who are medically vulnerable — have been told when their time will come.
Some other states haven’t prioritized those groups, either, and limited supply of vaccines has caused distribution schedules to stall across the country. But Florida is one of just two that gave the 65-plus population vaccines first, which has dragged out the first phase even longer and made the state one of only four that hasn’t moved on to new groups, Kates said.
Florida’s only public plan for vaccine distribution is a draft from October, and spokeswomen for DeSantis and the CDC both said it’s the only one that exists. So far, rollout in the state has strayed from the plan, which said that both essential workers and people who are medically vulnerable would be among the first to get shots. Instead, DeSantis signed an executive order Dec. 23 to launch a “Seniors First” campaign, and about 76 percent of the state’s doses have gone to that group.
Florida, which has one of the largest concentrations of seniors in the country, falls in the middle when it comes to how quickly states are distributing vaccines overall. As of Feb. 22, about 13 percent of Florida residents had received a first dose, and about 7 percent had received a second.
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Some of the state’s doses have gone to people other than seniors, like health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities and nursing homes. But fewer than 30,000 of the nearly 3 million shots administered have gone to medically vulnerable people younger than 65, barely scratching the surface of demand by that population, experts say.
Questions to the governor’s office about the state’s distribution schedule have gone unanswered for months. Before Tuesday’s mention of law enforcement and teachers, the only other indication of who gets vaccinated next was a statement by DeSantis last week that the state will move on to other groups once demand from seniors “starts to soften.” He suggested that would happen within the next month, once nearly 3 million of the state’s 4.3 million people 65 and older get shots.
Other states, meanwhile, have updated their distribution plans multiple times and kept the public apprised of where vaccine rollout stands. Arizona, for example, released its third version last month. Kentucky has a website where residents can enter their information to find out where they fall in line.
DeSantis has repeatedly defended his choice to prioritize residents 65 and older, even in the face of criticism that the move was politically motivated. “Yes, we are aggressively vaccinating seniors, and I don’t care who you vote for,” he said Tuesday. “We’re proud of vaccinating seniors, and we’re going to keep doing it.”
Limited supply, hard decisions
It isn’t easy to decide who gets coronavirus vaccines first when they’re so limited, said Cindy Prins, a public health expert at the University of Florida. But it’s reasonable for residents to want to have some idea of when they’ll get their turn, and more information would cut down on the frantic scrambling for shots, she said.
“We have a lot of confusion,” Prins added. “If people knew where they were in the line, I think they would feel much more content.”
Sen. Shevrin Jones, a Democrat from Miami, has been pushing state leaders for months to release a more detailed plan. He said he wishes he had a graph or pyramid — anything from the state — to explain vaccine distribution to his frustrated constituents.
“When people can visualize and they can actually see that there’s something in place, then they don’t have to be anxious because they know their time is coming,” he said.
Giselle Alvarez, chief operating officer of Hitchcock’s Market, an independent grocery chain with 12 locations across Florida, has tried to make changes to keep her employees safe from the coronavirus, like offering delivery and curbside pickup, and requiring masks. But that hasn’t brought the same relief that vaccines would, she said.
“Our employees are putting themselves out there every day, being exposed, working hard and not complaining,” she said. “The state definitely should have included grocery workers in the first group for vaccines. We’re the ones who stayed open when everything else shut down.”
Desire for shots from Florida teachers has grown, too, as more students return to in-person schooling, said Pinellas County School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. The board recently sent a letter to DeSantis, asking that educators be prioritized for vaccines along with health care workers and seniors.
“We ask that as decisions continue to be made for distribution of the vaccine that you add prioritization for school district employees,” it read. “They, too, are front-line heroes who serve their students, families and community daily.”
Teachers are concerned about their health and safety, Cook said, and vaccines would give them, and the families of their students, peace of mind. It would also ensure the school district has enough teaching staff to go around, she said.
“We are managing to get the classrooms covered,” Cook said, but only with the help of substitute teachers. And many full-time educators are having to split their time between in-person and online instruction to reach every student, because so many others have taken leaves of absence.
As of Feb. 18, Florida was one of 23 states that hadn’t provided shots to teachers, and one of 19 that hadn’t made them available to law enforcement and other first responders, according to the Kaiser analysis. It is one of 37 states that have not made grocery workers eligible, one of 38 that haven’t given shots to transit workers, and one of 35 that haven’t made vaccines available to all vulnerable residents, Kaiser found.
Most experts agree that essential workers and people who are medically vulnerable should, and will, be among those who get access to shots next. Those are the people DeSantis “skipped over” when he declared seniors would be the state’s for vaccines, said Michael Teng, an immunologist at the University of South Florida.
“Gov. DeSantis imposed his view of vaccinations, which was 65 and older, which there’s a reasonable basis for,” he said. “But there are a whole bunch of other people out there ... who have to come to work and be among people. Grocery workers, teachers ... trash collectors. And people with underlying medical conditions.”
Different groups need simultaneous access to the vaccine for Florida to reach herd immunity, the scientific term for what happens when a large enough proportion of a population has enough immunity to slow the spread of a virus to a halt, said Prins, the UF professor. Prioritization of doses must be based not only on the vulnerability of certain groups, but also on those groups’ likelihood of transmitting the coronavirus.
For example, while seniors might be more vulnerable to COVID-19, they are less likely to spread it, Prins said. Younger people, meanwhile, are less vulnerable, but more likely to transmit the virus — and more likely to work jobs that put them at higher risk.
“We can’t look at seniors as a group in which they alone need to have community immunity because they’re interacting with other groups as well,” she added.
It’s a complicated set of decisions. Opening up shots to essential workers presents other questions, like who is considered part of that group, and which professions will get access first if supplies are still strained.
As of Tuesday, the state had not answered either.
Staff writers Natalie Weber and Allison Ross contributed to this report.
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