TALLAHASSEE - Gov. Ron DeSantis on Wednesday asked Floridians to be patient as COVID-19 vaccines are rolled out for the state’s seniors, a process that is already creating a rush and placing a substantial burden on hospitals that play a key role in carrying out the governor’s directives.
DeSantis departed last week from federal guidelines and decided to make people 65 and older a priority for vaccinations, as opposed to "essential" workers such as teachers, first responders and grocery-store employees.
Taking that step has created a surge of demand, according to media reports from across the state, including the sight of older residents waiting overnight in Southwest Florida to be among the first to get vaccinated. There also have been reports of jammed phone lines and overwhelmed websites as people try to get appointments for shots.
"The COVID vaccine supply is limited," DeSantis said Wednesday during an appearance at a Palm Beach County senior complex where 300 residents were being inoculated. "We don’t have enough vaccine on hand for all 4 million-plus senior citizens. We will get there."
DeSantis said about 175,000 vaccinations --- coming from doses produced by the drug companies Pfizer and Moderna --- had been administered. He said there was a slowdown around Christmas that is expected to occur again on New Year’s Day, but DeSantis anticipates a substantial ramping-up when the holidays are over.
"We do feel the supply is starting to come at a pretty good rhythm," DeSantis said.
A large part of the job to vaccinate seniors has fallen to hospitals and some county health departments. A handful of health departments began dispensing shots this week, with the rest expected to get allotments by the end of the week.
But hospital officials say they have had to move cautiously at the start. Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida Chief Executive Officer Justin Senior said hospitals have used vaccines on their front-line workers, but they have been administering the shots in waves to ensure they won’t be left short-handed if staff members have any potential adverse reactions.
Senior’s organization includes public, children’s and teaching hospitals, such as UF Health Jacksonville, Tampa General Hospital, Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County and Jackson Health System in Miami-Dade County.
Large hospitals are just now shifting their focus away from front-line health care workers and toward the 4.6 million residents age 65 and older, as DeSantis directed in a Dec. 23 executive order. In addition to focusing on the 65-plus population, DeSantis included as a top priority health care workers who have direct contact with patients. Initially only hospital front-line workers were offered the vaccine.
DeSantis’s executive order also gives hospitals authority to vaccinate people they "deem to be extremely vulnerable."
Hospitals systems are taking different approaches. Tampa General Hospital announced that on Wednesday one of its affiliated physician groups would begin administering the Pfizer vaccine to current patients who are 65 and older and to patients who have comorbidities that make them vulnerable to COVID-19.
In Miami, Jackson Health scheduled a 4 p.m. news conference, where former Miami Dolphins player Nat Moore and musical artist Emilio Estefan, both of whom are over age 65, will be vaccinated. The publicly supported health care system also is slated to announce its vaccinations plans.
The North Broward Hospital District announced on its website Wednesday that it was no longer scheduling appointments to vaccinate health-care workers and the 65-plus population because demand for the vaccine outpaced supply. The district, which operates as Broward Health, said scheduling for vaccinations will resume in the coming weeks.
"Things are moving pretty quickly," said Senior who acknowledged that many of the logistics of the massive vaccination effort haven’t been finalized. Among the unanswered questions is how much state support will be provided to the facilities.
"But there isn’t any kind of panic out there right now," Senior said. "We understand there’s a big job ahead and January is going to be a big deal."
While most hospitals haven’t traditionally been the face of public health, Senior said safety-net facilities can play an effective role in the vaccination efforts. Senior said his member facilities have "hundreds of sites running from Pensacola to Miami" that can be used to administer vaccinations. He said he anticipates that his members will work with county health departments but said details are still being worked out.
"I think that everybody is ready and willing, and it’s just making sure that the expectations are there and that everyone has a shared definition of success," said Senior, a former secretary of the state Agency for Health Care Administration.