Florida seniors begin swarming COVID-19 vaccination sites

Coronavirus

Boxes containing the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine are prepared to be shipped at the McKesson distribution center in Olive Branch, Miss., Sunday, Dec. 20, 2020. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis begged for patience from anxious seniors waiting their turn to get inoculated against COVID-19, as confusion and frustration arose over the availability of the life-saving vaccine among some of the state’s most vulnerable.

At vaccination sites across the state, seniors formed long lines — some camping out overnight with lawn chairs and blankets — hoping to get immunity from the virus. Before the sun had even risen Wednesday morning, one southwest Florida county’s vaccine supply for the day was already accounted for, prompting officials to turn down anyone else who was arriving.

Seniors in other parts of the state were frustrated by busy phone lines and websites that would no longer issue new vaccination appointments.

DeSantis has prioritized Floridians older than 65 to be next in line for the state’s stock of vaccine, now that most health care workers and other first responders are protected against the virus that has infected more than 1.2 million Floridians and killed more than 21,000.

More than 82% of those who have died from the disease have been older than 65, underscoring the urgency in getting older Floridians vaccinated, the governor said Wednesday.

“The COVID-19 vaccine supply is still limited. We don’t have enough vaccine currently on hand for all 4 million-plus senior citizens in the state of Florida,” the governor said during a news conference in Delray Beach.

“We’re going to get there but it’s not going to happen overnight. So please be patient,” the governor implored during a visit to a senior living community, where 300 seniors were to be vaccinated.

Amid uncertainty about how quickly the state can acquire more doses of two now-available vaccines, county health departments and hospitals across the state are scrambling to deliver the vaccine to seniors.

Lin Humphrey, a college professor whose 81-year-old mother lives with him in a high-rise apartment in Miami, said it took him about 80 calls to get someone on the phone at a Miami Beach hospital that began inoculating elderly people last week with limited doses of the vaccines.

“It reminded me of the 80s where you had to call into a radio station to be the 10th caller to get concert tickets,” Humphrey said. “When I finally got through, I cried on the phone with the woman.”

Humphrey said his mother has only left the apartment twice since March — once to go to the hospital and once for a medical appointment. “This really will give me more comfort that I can get her out of the building, he said.

Early Wednesday morning, Lee County health officials, located on Florida’s Gulf Coast, announced all three sites had reached capacity in its third day of providing injections to residents 65 and older. People had lined up outside a library, recreation center and a theater to snatch one of the few hundred doses available after health authorities said no appointment was necessary as they would be administered on a first-come, first-serve basis.

Abdulla Benkhatar, 90, was at the front of the line Tuesday morning at the North Fort Myers Recreation Center.

“We’ve been at home for almost 10 months now. It’s really important to me, for my health, and to be able to do things I like to do and get back to normal,” he told WZVN-TV.

As of Tuesday, the Florida Department of Health said it had administered doses to roughly 175,465 in the state, most of them health care workers, emergency first responders and residents of assisted care facilities.

Some seniors began receiving shots Monday in the first eight counties who received their vaccine allotments last week. The state’s other 59 counties are expected to soon begin receiving their share of vaccines.

The Orlando Sentinel reported that state health officials in Orange County on Tuesday closed its online portal after generating 30,000 appointments in about 24 hours.

Other counties also had to turn people away.

To date, Florida has gotten more than 767,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It was unclear how much more was on the way from the federal government.

Counties and hospitals have taken different approaches in how they administer the vaccine, prompting confusion, frustration and lines.

“They are going to work through issues, as they have been,” the governor said. “If you are 65 and older, you are going to get access to this. It may not be today for everyone, may not be next week. But over the next many weeks, as long as we continue getting the supply, you’re going to have the opportunity to get this.”

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AP reporter Adriana Gomez Licon contributed to this report from Miami.

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