Three months after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that seniors were his top priority in the coronavirus vaccine rollout, about 1.8 million of the state’s residents 65 and older still hadn’t been vaccinated as of Monday.
DeSantis is expanding vaccination eligibility next week to anyone 60 or older, adding another 1.4 million people to those vying with seniors for the often hard-to-get vaccine appointments. Health care workers, people of any age with underlying conditions and firefighters, teachers and law enforcement officers 50 and older also are eligible.
Advocates and agencies that serve seniors are worried. Aside from the competition for shots, many seniors can’t use online appointment systems, lack transportation to clinics or are homebound.
“As we add this new group,... that’s going to create the possibility of people who are 65 and up who’ve been trying to get through — but just haven’t been able to get through yet — just giving up,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP.
“Seniors First. That’s what Governor DeSantis promised,” said Brian Lee, director of Families for Better Care, which advocates for long-term care residents. ”As more vaccines become available, they should be funneled to seniors first, so we can get back to safely reuniting grandparents with their grandchildren without the fear of someone getting sick and dying.”
As of Monday, 59 percent of Floridians 65 and older — about 2.6 million people — had received at least one dose of the vaccine, according to the Florida Department of Health. Florida has nearly 4.5 million seniors.
“The state’s top priority remains to vaccinate as many eligible Floridians as possible,” said Samantha Bequer, press secretary of the state Division of Emergency Management. “Through a combination of the federally-supported vaccination sites, the federal pharmacy program and the state’s weekly vaccine allocations, the state is able to expand prioritized populations for COVID-19 vaccines, while also still ensuring Florida’s seniors are able to receive the vaccine.”
The state has also run clinics in neighborhoods and faith-based locations, a mobile program to vaccinate homebound residents and on-site clinics in care facilities.
Some unvaccinated seniors may have chosen not to get the shots. In the first round of vaccine clinics at care facilities, 85 percent of assisted-living residents and 69 percent of nursing home residents opted to receive the vaccine, according to the state.
The federal government also is trying to help get seniors vaccinated.
The Biden administration said last week it will partner with health insurance companies, who will contact Medicare recipients with information about vaccines, schedule appointments and coordinate transportation. The focus will be on reaching people in medically underserved areas.
And seniors can obtain shots through pharmacies, grocery store chains and some medical facilities.
State health department offices in each county have their own systems for vaccinating people 65 and older, but more than 300,000 in Tampa Bay had not received shots as of Monday, according to the state data. Every county office is sharing information on social media and with local agencies, and some are connecting more directly with seniors.
As of Monday, nearly 54 percent of Hillsborough County’s 206,498 seniors had received at least one dose, according to the state, leaving more than 95,000 unvaccinated.
The county’s health department office has administered 17,529 first doses at targeted clinics in senior communities and 175 first doses via mobile vaccine services for homebound individuals, according spokesman Kevin Watler.
As of Monday, nearly 53 percent of Pinellas County’s 247,636 seniors had received at least one dose, according to the state, leaving more than 116,000 unvaccinated.
The county’s health department office has allowed residents to sign up for shots online and notifies them with appointments in the order in which they signed up. This alleviates the need for them to compete for appointments online.
The department is sharing information with churches, nonprofits and local government agencies and setting up clinics with them, according to spokesman Tom Iovino. The department also is training libraries to help people register for shots.
As of Monday, about 50 percent of Pasco County’s 124,451 seniors had received at least one dose, according to the state, leaving more than 62,000 unvaccinated.
The county’s health department office is working with home health agencies, hospitals and physician’s offices, to expand their capacity to provide vaccinations and exploring program to vaccinate homebound people, according to their spokesperson.
As of Monday, about 44 percent of Hernando County’s 52,875 seniors had received at least one dose, according to the state, leaving nearly 30,000 unvaccinated.
The county’s health department office call center is open 24 hours a day to answer questions and help with scheduling, according to spokeswoman Ashley Thomas. And the department has organized vaccination clinics in senior communities.
Times reporter Allison Ross contributed to this report. The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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