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Where are the millions who aren’t getting vaccinated? Florida won’t say.

State officials are supposed to be tracking shots by ZIP code so they can see where the need is. But records on that are hard to come by.
Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are distributed on April 13 at the Larry Sanders Sports Complex in Tampa, part of an effort to get shots to underserved communities. The state is said to be tracking the need by ZIP code, but records provided so far give a muddled view of that effort.
Doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine are distributed on April 13 at the Larry Sanders Sports Complex in Tampa, part of an effort to get shots to underserved communities. The state is said to be tracking the need by ZIP code, but records provided so far give a muddled view of that effort. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Apr. 23
Updated Apr. 23

As officials work to ramp up the number of Floridians getting coronavirus vaccines, a key element is knowing which pockets of a community aren’t getting the shots, experts say.

The Florida Department of Health has said it would keep track of that information by ZIP code. But in response to records requests, it has released just a sliver of the data to the public.

The state this week handed over documents from 12 of Florida’s 67 counties, responding to a request for data showing ZIP codes of people who have received COVID-19 shots so far. The documents are scattered and incomplete, coming in various formats, containing varying levels of detail and in some cases months old. They appear to be analyses done by local officials in each of those counties.

The state said it had no responsive records for the other 55 counties in the state. It did not respond to emailed questions about whether it was using any ZIP code or other granular data to help decide where to target vaccination and outreach efforts.

On Monday, health department spokesman Jason Mahon said he would look into whether some data was missing from what was provided to the Tampa Bay Times and other media outlets. He did not respond to two follow-up emails.

Florida’s vaccine distribution plan says the state would monitor “access to COVID-19 vaccination services by population in all phases of implementation.” It specifies that the ZIP code of each shot recipient should be recorded in Florida SHOTS, a centralized database for immunizations of all kinds.

The plan, published in October, states that demographic information would be used to help Florida identify target groups, or populations more at risk of contracting COVID-19 or not getting a vaccine.

The department also published an emergency rule in December requiring vaccine providers to continuously report demographic information — including recipients’ addresses — into the state’s vaccine database.

Not every state has provided ZIP code data to the public. But some, like Arizona and Texas and Massachusetts, have.

Recently during Florida’s vaccine rollout, officials in Orange County provided some ZIP code data following a reporter’s request. The state health department then terminated the county’s access to the vaccine database, WFTV first reported.

When asked about the termination at a news conference, Gov. Ron DeSantis said the decision did not come across his desk, telling a reporter, “You should talk to the department of health about it.”

DeSantis’ administration has faced questions throughout the vaccine rollout about whether officials have at times prioritized some of Florida’s wealthiest ZIP codes. He and state officials have repeatedly denied that those communities have gotten special access.

The records provided by the state this week included a mixture of data, reports and maps that health departments in a dozen counties appeared to have culled from the state vaccine database.

The records covered the following counties: Alachua, Hillsborough, Lake, Leon, Miami-Dade, Nassau, Orange, Palm Beach, Pasco, Pinellas, Sarasota and St. Lucie. Most were dated February or March, with no way to see how vaccine distribution had progressed over time.

The data varied from county to county, with some reports focusing only on residents 65 and older and some offering percentages on a map without the numbers behind those percentages.

Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist and board member of the Florida Health Justice Project, said the data released by the state this week makes her wonder whether anyone at the state level is monitoring vaccination trends by geography or if it’s being “relegated to each individual jurisdiction to deal with as they see fit.”

“As a state entity, in order to make decisions, to plan, to have an adequate public health response, you’d want to have more solid information,” Bailey said. “You’d want all that data together in a spreadsheet of some sort that’s comparable across locations.”

This is not the first time the state has delayed access to information related to the coronavirus pandemic, pushing news outlets to enlist lawyers to get data, such as for breakdowns of cases at long-term care facilities.

Jason Salemi, a professor of epidemiology at the University of South Florida, said the state health department has been better about releasing more detailed data than some states, including case-level data on positive coronavirus cases. He said he could understand caution from the state about releasing certain data if they’re not reliable or could be easily misinterpreted.

But he added that having more detailed data can help in making “more specific decisions” about where to focus outreach efforts.

“The more granular of data we have, the more we can identify actionable steps and things we can do to increase vaccinations,” Salemi said. “We’re probably doing good in some areas and doing bad in others.”

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