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Hundreds turned away after hearing they could get vaccine at Tampa church

A state contractor had given the COVID-19 shot to people under 60 on Saturday and said they’d do it again Sunday at a pop-up site in Claire-Mel.
Hundreds of people too young to meet the state's criteria wait in line outside Keeney Chapel United Methodist Church on Sunday in hopes of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine.
Hundreds of people too young to meet the state's criteria wait in line outside Keeney Chapel United Methodist Church on Sunday in hopes of receiving a COVID-19 vaccine. [ ANASTASIA DAWSON | Times ]
Published Mar. 21
Updated Mar. 21

PALM RIVER/ CLAIR-MEL — The last thing health authorities wanted to see was more long waits like those that plagued the early days of the coronavirus vaccine rollout in the Tampa Bay area.

But that’s just what happened Sunday as some 400 people from as far away as Orlando arrived as early as 4 a.m. for the promise of a shot when the doors opened at 9 outside Clair-Mel’s Keeney Chapel United Methodist Church.

Why the crowd when health authorities had been reporting more doses than they can distribute each day at the giant Tampa Greyhound Track vaccination site in Tampa?

Because word was that these vaccines were available to people younger than 60, the minimum age at the time for vaccine recipients who aren’t in frontline jobs or have medical notes

Related: A guide to finding a coronavirus vaccine in Tampa Bay and Florida

It turns out the word was wrong. Most of those in line were sent home unvaccinated and angry.

“It’s been a nightmare all day, just so disorganized and rude this whole time and no one could tell us who was in charge, what was going on, who we needed to call or talk to,” said Ana Lamb, 46, who has diabetes. “I asked if they could communicate what was going on in Spanish, because there were lots of people here earlier who were Spanish speakers, but they couldn’t even tell us what was going on in English.”

Lamb showed up well before dawn Sunday to find three University of South Florida students had beaten her to the front of the line for the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccines to be administered at the church. Keeney Chapel was one of a number of mobile “pop-up” sites in Hillsborough County and statewide operated by consultant Matrix Medical Network.

Like many who joined the line, Lamb and her husband are younger than 60 — younger even than 50, the new minimum age in Florida starting Monday morning.

They had been lured by social media posts, word of mouth from friends and family, and news reports about a pop-up site run by Matrix the day before where younger people received vaccinations until the company used up its 500 doses.

The site was the Feeding Tampa Bay food bank on the Dale Mabry Campus of Hillsborough Community College. If you missed out, staff there told them, just come to Matrix’s Claire-Mel popup the next day. Matrix also vaccinated all comers at a pop-up site outside Orlando Jazz in the Park on Saturday, the Orlando Sentinel reported.

But by 2 p.m. Sunday, Lamb and her husband were still waiting. Nearly everyone else had gone home.

Representatives for Matrix Medical Network did not immediately return a phone call and email Sunday from the Tampa Bay Times seeking an explanation for the mixed messaging. None of the company’s representatives or others at the church would comment.

Gov. Ron DeSantis said he expects to open vaccinations to all in April.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, in a vaccination-progress news conference Sunday at the greyhound track site, said whoever gives notice that younger people can get vaccinated now “probably sent a message in error.”

“We would like to do that … but we would be mobbed,” Castor said. “Occasionally, a site tweets out that younger people can come and that causes a race to get to those locations.”

Overnight, news of 18-year-olds receiving vaccinations at the Hillsborough Community College clinic had spread all the way to Orlando, where 27-year-old Rob Rowe left home at 3:30 a.m. to reach the church early.

But there was little movement at 9 a.m. when the pop-up operation was supposed to get underway, Rowe said. Hour after hour, more officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and Florida’s Department of Health and State Emergency Response Team came and went. Still, little movement.

Then, around noon, authorities told the crowd that the state would only allow staff to vaccinate those 60 and over who lived in the church’s 33619 area code or who qualified under the state’s employment or medical standards.

Still, Matrix staff continued allowing anyone in line to register for the vaccine, Rowe said. Then, around 1:30 p.m., the message to go home was repeated.

“Now I guess it’s just Lord of the Flies, with everyone wondering if they should leave or if other people who show up later will get vaccinated when we were all told no,” Rowe said. “I mean, we understand that they wanted to prioritize people who live in this zip code, but most of the people I’ve seen vaccinated today didn’t meet the eligibility criteria, either.”

Around 2 p.m., the last holdouts headed to their cars to try their luck at the greyhound track, open 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day

Castor, 61, received her first dose of coronavirus vaccine there Friday and praised the process as “seamless” and “incredibly efficient.”

By the time she arrived Friday, the clinic was out of the one-dose vaccine option, she said. But the location hasn’t had a day yet when it administered all its allocation of 3,000 vaccine doses. Left-over doses are stored for later use, authorities said at the news conference.

Volunteers at the Clair-Mel site estimated that by 2 p.m., only 30 or 40 people had received one of the 500 vaccinations available there Sunday. The site was open until 7 p.m. Some people tried to get a shot even after learning they didn’t meet the state criteria.

Alexandra Fernandez, 25, said she told the staff her father is immunocompromised and they agreed to vaccinate her — but only if her father would drive down from Lutz to vouch for her story.

“It shouldn’t be a surprise that things are disorganized since it’s been disorganized since the beginning of COVID, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating,” said a frustrated Isabel Muir, 22. “We all have grandparents, friends, family, suffering from this virus, and if I knew I would walk away with a shot in my arm I would wait all day and all night to get vaccinated.”

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