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Tampa Bay’s mass vaccination sites wind down as rollout hits new phase

The focus shifts to reaching those who have been unable or unwilling to get COVID-19 shots. “We’re not done yet.”
Nurse Esther Martineau, left, administers a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot to Nelsida Fuenmayor, of Tampa, on Tuesday at the federally-run Tampa Greyhound Track site. The site is giving its last shot on May 25.
Nurse Esther Martineau, left, administers a Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot to Nelsida Fuenmayor, of Tampa, on Tuesday at the federally-run Tampa Greyhound Track site. The site is giving its last shot on May 25. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published May 20
Updated May 20

The waning demand for COVID-19 vaccines can clearly be seen at the federally supported site at the Tampa Greyhound Track.

Gone are the five lanes that used to be filled with cars of people awaiting shots during the busy morning rushes. Now people can simply drive up and park and walk right in, no matter the time of day.

The 25,000 square feet of air-conditioned tents that housed people getting shots has been reduced nearly in half. Instead of thousands of vaccine-seekers each day, workers at the site are now happy to see a few hundred.

“It’s definitely getting to the point where it’s time to shut down,” said Tim Pratt, a spokesman for the site.

Realizing that efforts to get people vaccinated need to move into a new phase, local and state officials are closing some mass vaccination sites and doubling down on more targeted efforts to reach people who have not gotten the vaccine either due to reluctance or lack of access. The state, for example, will continue to offer shots at mobile vaccination sites, Pratt said.

The Tampa Greyhound site, he said, will dole out its last shots on May 25 and dismantle on the 26th. Pratt noted that the site had originally been scheduled to close at the end of April, but Gov. Ron DeSantis directed the state to send vaccines there and to three other federally supported sites so they could stay open longer.

Meanwhile, the state-run vaccine sites at Raymond James Stadium and the Children’s Board will shut down on June 18, according to Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesperson Samantha Bequer. She said the sites will stop offering first-dose Pfizer-BioNTech shots after May 21 and will offer the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shots until the sites close. Vaccinations at the Port of Tampa Bay will end June 20, Bequer said.

In Pinellas County, health department officials said the wider availability of vaccines at pharmacies and other locations, as well as slowing demand, led them to decide their large, centralized vaccine sites “had served their purpose.” The department is now offering vaccines at four of its locations on a rotating schedule.

And Hillsborough County has shut down most of the mass vaccination sites it ran, with operations currently consolidated at Palm River Park. There is discussion of shutting that site as well in June.

Some large coronavirus testing sites are also shutting down or reducing operations amid lower numbers of coronavirus cases and increased availability of testing from private providers. That includes the state-run testing site at University Mall in Hillsborough County, which closes Friday.

John Riddick, of Tampa, center, sits in an observation tent Tuesday after receiving his second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Tampa Greyhound Track site. With demand for shots waning, the site has reduced its footprint by about half.
John Riddick, of Tampa, center, sits in an observation tent Tuesday after receiving his second Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine shot at the Tampa Greyhound Track site. With demand for shots waning, the site has reduced its footprint by about half. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Jay Rajyaguru, emergency management coordinator with Hillsborough County Fire Rescue, said the county’s goal from the beginning was to help people get COVID-19 vaccines until the doses were widely available at places like doctor’s offices and pharmacies.

“Now that … people have access to the vaccine around the corner, where they’d normally go get the vaccine or any other medical treatment, we’re able to step back a little bit,” Rajyaguru said.

He stressed that the county will still work with the health department and other organizations on things like homeless and homebound vaccinations and targeted vaccine pop-ups at mobile home parks or businesses. He said the county is planning to partner with the School Board to set up vaccination tents at schools over the summer.

“We’re not done yet. There are still plenty of people who need the vaccine,” Rajyaguru said.

Experts say it’s imperative that vaccination efforts shift from just offering shots to actively trying to reach people who have not gotten vaccinated.

There have already been some creative efforts to do so.

Earlier this month, the city of Tampa held a “Vaccy and Vacay” promotion in Ybor City, with a DJ and a block party and $5 vouchers to three nearby bars or restaurants for anyone who got a vaccine shot on the spot. About 60 people got vaccinated during the two-day promotion, despite the city having 400 shots available, but a city spokesperson said the catchy messaging helped create a “buzz” around the benefits of being vaccinated.

At least one Pinellas County pharmacy is driving doses to hotels to host vaccination events for hospitality employees. Arkane Aleworks in Largo is promoting a vaccine event Thursday where people 21 and older who get a vaccine can also get a free beer. In Manatee County, city officials on Anna Maria Island are offering a souvenir with each vaccination during a clinic on May 25.

The Tampa Bay Lightning is offering vaccines to fans attending games 3 or 4 of the first-round playoff series at Amalie Arena.

Related: Lightning to offer vaccinations to fans ticketed for games 3 and 4

“We have to be thinking hard about where are the pockets of resistance to vaccine left, and where are those people going in their everyday lives,” said Lori Freeman, chief executive officer of the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

Freeman noted that about 60 percent of American adults have gotten at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine to date. But getting shots to another 10 percent of adults in order to reach President Joe Biden’s goal of 70 percent by July 4 is going to be tough, Freeman said.

In Florida, more than 9.7 million people have gotten at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine to date, or about 52 percent of people aged 12 and older.

Demand for the vaccine has fallen significantly since a peak more than a month ago. Experts had expected demand to slow over time as many of those most interested and able to get shots do so, but the drop-off at this stage has raised concerns that the U.S. may not be able to reach herd immunity.

Figuring out how best to reach people not yet vaccinated can be tricky and must focus not only on how to get vaccines to people but also on listening to concerns about the vaccines and providing information.

Alan Morgan, chief executive officer of the National Rural Health Association, said messages about what the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is and isn’t recommending doesn’t resonate in many rural communities. He said it will be crucial for local leaders — like local physicians, pastors or farmers — to promote the vaccines as protecting the community and keeping businesses open.

Some physicians in Florida are getting COVID-19 to their offices, but many others have been unable to do so or have opted against it over logistical hurdles with requesting the doses or storing the vials.

Bequer, with the emergency management office, said the state fulfills requests from hospitals and doctors for COVID-19 vaccine allocations as requests are received.

Dr. Jason Goldman, Florida regent for the American College of Physicians, said he’s had patients say they don’t feel comfortable going to a pharmacy or other site to get the vaccine. But while the Coral Springs doctor said he’s filled out all the forms to request doses of the vaccine to his practice, he has yet to get any.

Goldman and other doctors say the biggest hurdle in vaccinations right now is misinformation. Physicians, they say, can play an important role in being a trusted source of information for their patients.

That takes time — and a personal touch, Goldman said. “You try to overcome with education, with details, with facts, with data.”

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