At long last, the day many Floridians have waited for arrived: As of April 5, adults 18 and over qualify to receive the Pfizer-BioNTech, Moderna or Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Meanwhile, 16- and 17-year-olds will be able to get the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.
Times reporters and photographers visited vaccine distribution centers throughout the Tampa Bay area Monday. Here’s what they saw.
Tampa Bay residents ready for post-vaccine life
Michelle Gamboa can’t wait to go to Busch Gardens. Or even just hang out at a bar. Maybe do some karaoke. She really misses karaoke.
”I want to go out with friends and not worry about who might be patient zero,” said Gamboa, 36, as she prepared to drive away from the coronavirus vaccine site at Raymond James Stadium.
Stymied by the pandemic, Gamboa said she and her husband have been practicing karaoke in their house. The current favorite: “Double Trouble” from the soundtrack to the movie Eurovision.
Gamboa said doing karaoke with more than her husband is just one small thing she hopes she’ll get back thanks to the coronavirus vaccines.
”I wanted peace of mind,” Gamboa said about why she wanted to get her first dose as soon as she was eligible. “I’m tired of being scared.”
In front of her in the vaccine line, Jair Romero, 23, also was ready for a return to normalcy, and some music.
”I’m young and I want to go out and enjoy my life,” Romero said. “But I haven’t gone out since the pandemic because I didn’t think it was responsible.”
Once he’s fully vaccinated, he wants to go out to a club, he said, although he said he’ll still wear a mask. He hopes the DJ plays “Yikes” by Nicki Minaj.
Madelyn DeVega, 17, missed out on a lot of the usual senior year of high school experiences thanks to the pandemic.
No prom or homecoming. No slew of college visits. A canceled band trip to New York City. A pared-back graduation.
Like many others who showed up to get COVID-19 vaccine shots on Monday, immunization offered a chance at a return to normalcy for Madelyn.
Once she’s fully vaccinated, she hopes to take a short trip with friends (although she and her father are currently negotiating how far she will be allowed to go) and to try to cram in some of those senior-year experiences at the last minute.
”I’m excited to spend time with friends without the stress of planning ahead,” Madelyn said.
What you need to know about vaccines in Tampa Bay
- Looking for a vaccine? Our guide offers some tips and tricks for getting a shot, plus info on vaccination sites in our region.
- Have questions about the process? Our health and medicine reporter Megan Reeves answered dozens of your commonly-asked vaccine questions.
- Wondering how Florida’s vaccination process is going? Here are the numbers that show how the state stacks up against others.
- Are you a health care worker? Do you have a tip to share with us? Here’s how to submit one.
- Are you 16 or 17? You’ll need this form to get a coronavirus vaccine in Florida.
Essential workers ready for immunity
Deborah Mandler has waited weeks to get her coronavirus shot. She was hesitant to get one because of the fast pace of the vaccine development.
But the 67-year-old can’t control whether customers at BJ’s Wholesale, where she works, wear their masks.
Some don’t, the Dunedin resident said. Sometimes she has to ask customers to move back, or to not breathe over her shoulder.
”I’m around a lot of people everyday for my job,” she said. “And it seems like it’s escalating.
”I figured it was time to do this.”
So Mandler booked her shot in Largo for Monday afternoon. The vaccination process went quickly, she said, and soon enough she was flexing and moving her arms in the observation room with other recipients.
One of the women working at the site led the group through arm exercises as they waited to leave the building, attempting to help ward off any injection-site pain.
”Downward eagle,” she enthused, showing the crowd to move their arms down. “Push the pain away.”
Things were a bit slower in Hernando County for the state’s first day of open vaccination availability. The county’s largest vaccination site, its fairgrounds, was not open on Monday.
The fairgrounds’ closure didn’t lead to lines elsewhere, however. Instead, residents, a majority of whom were older and already eligible for the vaccine prior to Monday, trickled in one at a time, sometimes over 30 minutes in between.
The exception to this trend was 34-year-old Seth Jenkins, who received his first dose of the Moderna vaccine just after 1 p.m. He was in and out within 15 minutes at the Pine Brook Pharmacy at 14111 Cortez Boulevard.
It was a “seamless” process, Jenkins said, adding that he’s glad he scheduled an appointment the moment they became available on March 29.
Jenkins is the owner of the Brooksville Veterinary Clinic and the husband of a first responder, who received her vaccine in January. He said he’s relieved he’ll be protected from the coronavirus for his health, but also to protect the owners of his patients, the animals he tends to and his way of making a living.
”Any positive coronavirus test and my business would be shut down two weeks,” Jenkins, who was still donning scrubs, said. “There’s no other veterinarian, nobody else to care for sick animals, it’s just me there.”
“Cautiously optimistic” as vaccine rollout expands
As the age eligibility for vaccinations drops, some seniors are delighted to know younger adults will also be protected — further shielding the most vulnerable from the virus.
”It gives us extra protection,” said 74-year-old Cindy Lawless. “My granddaughter is 16 and she’s going to get it.”
About three weeks ago, Lawless received her second dose along with her brother Phillip Gale, 70, at Publix. Now, he feels “cautiously optimistic.”
Strolling the St. Petersburg Pier, vaccinated vacation goers took in the Florida sun. John Rogers, 44, and Michelle Zimmerman, 42, planned the trip after receiving their first vaccine doses in Michigan.
”I wouldn’t have come here and gotten on a plane if I didn’t get it,” said Rogers.
Tara Pascal, a Boston-based health care worker who has been vaccinated, says it makes sense of younger adults to get vaccinated to protect the vulnerable.
”It’s one of the better things we can do right,” said Pascal, 23. “What else are we going to do?”
Some still weighing their options
When the news came that those 18 and over would be able to be vaccinated, 18-year-old Killian Sabourin, felt uneasy.
”I was enjoying having that buffer” between weighing my options and the vaccine being available, said Sabourin. The speed with which the vaccines were developed “caused me to sort of pause before making my decision” about whether to be vaccinated right away.
While many of Sabourin’s friends felt relieved to know they could now receive shots, “I’m so young, I don’t want to risk it,” said the St. Petersburg teen. “I’m taking my time and really weighing my options.”
Demand for shots in Hillsborough ramps up, while Pasco and Pinellas still have plenty available
About noon Monday, demand at vaccine sites in Hillsborough County was strong, said health department spokesman Kevin Watler. The wait at the federally supported state site at Tampa Greyhound Track was about 45 minutes, he said, and the site was reaching “unprecedented numbers” of people seeking shots. This is the last day the site will offer the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, as it will switch to the one-dose Johnson & Johnson option on Tuesday, which means today is the only day people 16 and 17 can access a shot at that location.
”The overall demand in the county is significantly up because we have a much larger criteria of people who qualify,” Watler said. “There is certainly a lot of interest.”
By noon, a steady stream of cars were filtering through the Raymond James Stadium site. One man said he got in line at 10:30 a.m. and finished up around 12:20 p.m.
Meanwhile, the Pasco County health department had one of its two vaccine sites — Saint Leo University — open. By noon, about 400 appointments had been filled, said spokeswoman Megan Carmichael. There have been other days where the site did more shots, even as many as 1,000.
But demand has softened in recent weeks, Carmichael said, because so many other distribution sites have opened in Pasco. She said she could not comment on the demand from people younger than 40, who became eligible for vaccination on Monday. And she encouraged people to sign up for shots if they’re seeking them, as the county still has appointments available for this week.
Shots were rolling out smoothly in Pinellas County on Monday, health department spokesman Tom Iovino said just before noon.
“It’s taking less than 20 minutes to get people through,” he said.
The health department’s site in Pinellas Park was giving out primarily second doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines. Of its 1,000 available appointments, about 975 had been taken.
The site at the Center for Health Equity in St. Petersburg also can give out about 1,000 doses a day, Iovino said, but he did not know how many of those appointments had been filled for Monday. The health department’s largest site in Largo can give out about 3,000, and 2,051 had been filled as of 1 p.m.
Pinellas was seeing a mix of people show up for shots, Iovino added. “We’ve seen older people, we’ve seen younger people.”
The sites had not seen many 16- and 17-year-olds by noon, however, likely because people those ages were in school, Iovino said. He recommended that people continue signing up for shots in Pinellas, as the health department has plenty of supply.
A big day for one Brooksville teen
He knew it was just his mind playing tricks on his body, but if he closed his eyes and focused his mind long enough to drown out the noise of idling car engines, upbeat Florida Department of Health volunteers and easy listening am radio that echoed through the parking garage-turned vaccination site at Saint Leo University Monday morning, Tyler Rorah swore he could feel the first dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccination coursing through his veins.
”It’s definitely a weird, weird feeling,” the 18-year-old from Brooksville laughed. “It’s like I’m willing my body to get to work and start making those antibodies already.”
Even if his mind control doesn’t work, it’s unlikely Rorah has a lazy cell left in his body. The teen left friends and family in New York to move to Brooksville just before the coronavirus pressed pause on his senior year of high school, he said. But virtual school meant he never had to worry about being the new kid in class, Rorah said. He wasn’t able to goof off with his friends back home, so he started looking for new ways to fill the extra time in his days. He got a job at Jersey Mike’s Subs and in recent weeks has been promoted to a manager. He got interested in Florida’s real estate industry and found a friend who became his partner in a quest to launch their own business. And in just a few weeks, Rorah is poised to become the first person in his family to get a college education when he starts classes at Pasco-Hernando State College this summer.
In a year where the whole world seemed motivated by the thought that someday life would “go back to normal,” Rorah said he started to think about what he wanted his “new normal” to really be. In short, he said, he started growing up.
”I think that, if COVID didn’t happen, I probably would have chosen a different path,” Rorah said. “I probably wouldn’t have met my girlfriend and I probably wouldn’t be as motivated as I am. So even something as horrible as COVID, there’s a yin and a yang to it. I definitely gave up some relationships, but in return I’ll probably be able to help a lot of people with my life.”
Where to find shots at Florida colleges and universities
The University of Florida’s athletic department is working with UF Health and the local health department to administer vaccines at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium starting at 11 a.m. The school plans to inoculate up to 5,000 people per day, reaching for a goal of 20,000 per week, a news release said. All eligible Floridians are welcome at the site.
Florida A&M University is administering shots at its Alfred Lawson Jr. Multipurpose Center at 1800 Wahnish Way, Tallahassee. The site is open from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each day, and appointments are not required. A total of 200 shots are given out each day.
Also in Tallahassee, Florida State University is distributing vaccines at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center, according to its website. The center is at 505 W Pensacola St., Tallahassee.
Valencia College’s West Campus in Orlando is administering vaccines, according to a tweet by Orange County government. The site at 1800 S Kirkman Road is open every day from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and no appointment is required.
Nova Southeastern University’s Fort Lauderdale/Davie campus is a vaccination site for employees and students 18 and older. Appointments can be made online with a Nova login.
Saint Leo University is offering Moderna vaccines to all students and employees 18 and older starting Tuesday, April 6. Shots will be distributed inside the parking garage beneath Turf Field on the campus at 33701 State Road 52, Saint Leo, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. The school said the best time to arrive is in the morning or after lunch, and that students and employees from all Saint Leo’s 12 locations in Florida, as well as those attending online, are eligible.
The University of Central Florida will open a mass vaccination clinic in its Pegasus Ballroom on April 7, offering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to about 6,000 students who live in the Orlando area. The clinic will run through April 9, and students can sign up through the UCF Mobile app.
The University of North Florida is offering Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines to students, faculty and staff April 6-7 at the UNF Field House. But all appointments had already been filled by Monday morning. The school was encouraging others seeking shots to visit a nearby drive-through site at Celebration Church, 9555 RG Skinner Parkway, Jacksonville, where no appointment is required.
Meet Maggie, Tampa’s vaccine mascot
Maggie is the unofficial mascot of the vaccine site at the Tampa Greyhound Track. Well, maybe it’s official. She’s got a badge and everything.
The five-month-old black Labrador belongs to Carole Covey, the site’s incident commander. Every morning, Maggie – who also has her own Instagram account – runs through the tents at the vaccine site before people show up to get their shots. She hangs out in the office and is taken on walks throughout the day, sometimes stopping to greet people waiting to see if they have any adverse reaction to the shots. Workers stop by to pet her or play tug-of-war. They offer belly rubs and she offers a break from the long days.
On Monday morning, she sat in the parking lot and watched as cars slowly rolled in off the street, carrying people waiting for their chance at a shot.
Second doses and smiles at St. Petersburg site
At the Center for Health Equity on 34th St. S, crowds ebb and flow as St. Petersburg police officers and site staff guide vehicles through the parking lot. Because the main lot is full, two lines of cars are wrapped around a dirt lot across the street, with officers allowing about 10 cars in to park at a time as vaccinated residents leave and eager residents arrive. Once parked, those with appointments can walk up and sign in — all are receiving their second vaccine dose.
Yulonda Wooten, a 51-year old bus driver for Pinellas County Schools, and her bus assistant, Kizmet Landers, just received doses. In and out in about five minutes, they said the process was smooth and now that they’re fully vaccinated, they feel “excellent.” At first, both were hesitant about getting vaccinated but once the risks of potentially contracting COVID-19 set in, both took the plunge.
”I knew I really had to get vaccinated when my grandma passed,” said Landers, 41.
At the Center, three weeks are dedicated to administering first vaccine doses and the following three weeks are reserved for second doses to mitigate confusion, staff says. While Floridians across the state are getting their first injection now that those 16 and older are eligible, residents with appointments to be vaccinated here are celebrating having completed the two part process.
”We have 6 months to do things we haven’t done in 13 months,” said Gail Rau, 81.
Rau and her husband, Del, have been completely locked down because they’re high risk, they said. Since the onset of the pandemic, they seen their daughter only outside on the balcony with masks. And otherwise, no socializing. And no restaurant takeout.
”I’m tired of cooking,” Rau said. The couple is looking forward to hosting other vaccinated friends for board and card games. Traveling? Not quite.
“We did our traveling in our younger days,” said Del.
Jeannine Szczepaniak, a nursing student with direct contact with patients, said she feels relieved.
”I feel so much better,” said the Clearwater resident. She’s grateful she could be vaccinated when other health care workers were eligible. Being a student, she was unsure.
”I was worried I wouldn’t be,” said Szczepaniak.
A busy, exciting morning at Gibsonton site
The Vance Vogel Sports Complex in Gibsonton expects to vaccinate 1,200 people today. As of 11 a.m., the site had given out 400 Pfizer-BioNTech shots, according to Dr. Rafael Jenkins.
Amber Reid, 35, was eager to get her first dose and wasn’t concerned about potential side effects. The Riverview wife and a mother of two kids works from home as a recruiter. She doesn’t have plans to travel or visit family members out of state. Instead, she prefers enjoy life from home with her children.
“This is a peace of mind,” she said. “This is a great day, a day that we were waiting for so long.”
Christopher Ferri, a 39-year-old IT Specialist from Valrico, set up his appointment without any problems. He got his vaccine dose in less than 10 minutes. His wife Jessie, 38, got her shot at the Gibsonton site earlier in the morning.
“It’s a big step for us as a family and parents,” he said. “Now we have to wait for our second dose, but this wonderful.”
Largo vaccine site has a wait time of “about three minutes”
Vaccines were flowing quickly at the Central Pinellas vaccine site in Largo on Monday morning. More than 500 doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were given out by 10:42 a.m., said Michael Handoga, deputy fire chief for Dunedin.
The process was “incredibly smooth,” he said, with short wait times.
Bobbi Jo Dwyer of Palm Harbor moved swiftly through the line at the Central Pinellas vaccine site in Largo just before 10:30. It took about three minutes for Dwyer to get her first dose.
The 47-year-old signed up for a shot as soon as she could get one, deciding on a slot today because it fit well with her work schedule as an executive assistant.
“I had COVID in January, and I don’t want to get it again,” she said.
Dwyer looks forward to traveling again. She and her husband are planning to cruise to the Cayman Islands later this year.
Wendy Pokorny was surprised Friday night when she was able to book a Monday morning vaccination appointment for her 17-year-old daughter, Julia Lane, at the Central Pinellas vaccine site in Largo.
“I didn’t expect to get it so soon,” she said.
The vaccination process was well-coordinated when they arrived about 10 a.m. Monday, Pokorny said. The pair moved quickly, so Pokorny could get back to her billing work and Lane could go to her research class.
Lane was one of the first of her friends to get her shot, she said. Her friend, Adam, who’s 16, is going today, too.
“I’m very eager to have it and get back to normal,” she said.
She’s missed her friends over the past year. The 11th-grader attends online classes at Pinellas Park High School and sees her friends much less. Her Future Business Leaders of America competition was supposed to be in Sacramento, Calif., this year, but now it’s online.
No appointment? No problem.
Some coronavirus vaccination sites in Tampa Bay are walk-up and do not require an appointment. Here’s a list of those open today, April 5:
- Tampa Greyhound Track, 755 E Waters Ave., Tampa
- Raymond James Stadium, 4201 N Dale Mabry Highway, Tampa
- Children’s Board, 1002 E Palm Ave., Tampa; Tampa Family Health Centers, 302 W Fletcher Ave., Tampa.
For details on these sites and others, visit the Times’ vaccine guide.
Ready to get back to normal
“I think the flu shot was a little worse,” said Richard Saez, 23, after he got his first dose of the Pzifzer coronavirus vaccine at the Central Pinellas vaccine site in Largo Monday morning. Lines of vaccine seekers moved quickly at the site, which was scheduled to administer more than 2,000 doses for the day, said Areyls Escalera, community outreach coordinator for Pinellas County.
Saez said he was excited to get the shot, but added, “I’ll probably feel much better once I get the second one.” The Riverview-based trumpeter is looking forward to playing more shows at churches and other venues across Tampa Bay now that he’s been partially vaccinated.
”I think getting the vaccine is a just a big step in getting back to what we had before that,” he said.
Juanita Spain, 62, has led the way in making sure her entire family got the COVID-19 vaccine.
On Monday, she waited in the car while her 17-year-old grandson, Randall Hill, got his first dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine at the Tampa Greyhound Track.
Spain said her older sister, who lived in New York, died from the coronavirus last year. She wants to make sure the rest of her family is safe.
Spain’s daughter, Christina Hill, said she is ready for things to get back to normal — to be able to have Randall going back to school in person and for them all to be available to take a family vacation to Gatlinburg this summer. So she roused her teenage son to get in line by 5:40 a.m. on the first day he was eligible for a vaccine.
They weren’t alone in that sentiment. By the time the vaccine site opened at 7 a.m., a line of cars spilled out of the parking lot of the Tampa Greyhound Track and down the street.
Carole Covey, the incident commander of the site, said her team was expecting high demand this morning. She noted that it’s possible they may run out of the site’s 3,000 first-dose shots today before the site closes at 7 p.m. Tomorrow, the site will switch to the Johnson & Johnson shots, so 16- and 17-year-olds will have to visit another location.
Excitement at the Tampa Greyhound Track
They dubbed their van “the vaccine trolley.”
Friends Elizabeth Krystyn and Kristen Showalter piled their kids, Evan Fueyo, 17, and Alina Showalter, 16, as well as a former exchange student, Kasia Pasternak 24, into the van early Monday so they could get in line for COVID-19 vaccine doses. They got in line at 5:10 a.m. and said they were the 20th car waiting.
Getting a vaccine just felt safe, they said. It was the right thing to do — and the chance toward returning to more normalcy. The crew brought cake pops with them in the van to celebrate afterwards.
Elsewhere at the track, women inside one vehicle cheered and danced as they waited in line for their shots.
Eric Nash, 36, showed up bright and early. Nash and his wife have a 6-month-old baby girl, Emma, who was born during the pandemic.
“I’ve been waiting and waiting,” for a chance to get a coronavirus vaccine, said Nash as he waited in his car Monday for the vaccine site at the Tampa Greyhound Track to open.
Nash wants to have more peace of mind about whether he or his family could get sick from the coronavirus. Someday soon, he hopes his brother, who lives in Washington, will be able to meet his little girl.
Shot information for teens
The Pinellas County health department is emphasizing on its website today that shots are available to 16- and 17-year-olds, not just those 18 and older. They’ll be getting the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only one of the three vaccines approved for that age group. The department started taking appointments for the younger group on Friday.
Trials are underway to see how kids even younger than that respond to the vaccine. Experts say children will be an important population to focus on if Florida is to reach herd immunity from COVID-19. For herd immunity to occur, 70 to 85 percent of the population must be vaccinated or have had the disease. Infants and children make up about 20 percent of the population.
If you are 16 or 17, you must bring a parent or guardian with you to get your shot, as well as this consent form. Other vaccines, by Moderna and Johnson & Johnson are available only to people 18 and older.
A smooth start in Tampa
The site at Raymond James Stadium started vaccinating folks in their cars at 7 a.m. There were about 40 cars initially, but more people have been arriving. As of 7:50 a.m., the wait time is between 15 to 30 minutes.
The state-supported site operates much like a drive-up coronavirus testing location, with motorists winding through a route lined with cones. There’s a station for temperature checks, checking identification, then a spot to get the shot. The site is distributing free Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines.