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Health First workers’ spouses vaccinated ahead of general public, sparking anger for some

Healthcare chain expanded offerings to spouses ‘due to short notice’

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Though health workers’ families were not specifically provided for in any vaccination plans set by both Florida and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, spouses of Health First associates have already started receiving first doses.

The move stirred controversy when news of a Health First email to employees’ families began to get out last week, reports News 6 partner Florida Today.

That email, sent to Health First associates on behalf of Brian Connor, Chief Operating Officer, Outpatient and Wellness Services, said:  “If you received a vaccine from Health First Monday, December 21, through Sunday, December 27, your spouse also has the opportunity to receive one next Monday, Tuesday or Wednesday. Click here to register.”

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“Because of the time sensitivity and expected interest in the vaccine, it is critical those who sign up to be vaccinated show up at their designated place and time to ensure a smooth, timely administration of vaccines.”

In a statement Monday, Health First said it decided to allow employees’ spouses to be among the first inoculated because the company was instructed by the state to distribute vaccines as quickly as possible when it received its first doses Dec. 21. Health First said when it became clear that he supplies would be available after vaccinating healthcare workers, the health system expanded its offerings, it stated.

“Due to the short notice and on Christmas Eve, we expanded beyond our frontline workers to any groups who could participate this past weekend,” Health First wrote. “As it became evident we would still have doses available, we also offered the vaccine to spouses of associates who had already been vaccinated. Our current quarantine guidelines state if a vaccinated associate’s spouse contracts COVID, the vaccinated associate will still be required to quarantine and not eligible to care for our patients. By vaccinating both the associate and their spouse, it allows us to continue our staffing plans to meet the needs of Brevard.”

Among the first spouses to get a vaccine was Milo Zonka, a former Palm Bay city council member and husband to Brevard County Commissioner Kristine Zonka, who is also a part-time nurse practitioner at Health First.

Milo Zonka posted on Facebook that he had received the COVID-19 vaccine Sunday. Then, feeling like his post may have been insensitive to some who suffered from COVID-19, he removed it Monday morning prior to being contacted by FLORIDA TODAY.

“My post was lighthearted, and a response from at least one friend was anguished over concern for a family member,” Zonka said.

But the news that Health First spouses were even in line to get the vaccine ahead of other health care professionals was enough to produce anger from some in the medical community. Several health care workers who asked to remain anonymous emailed FLORIDA TODAY to express their frustration.

“As a healthcare worker who has direct contact with patients every day, I am appalled.  As a Brevard County resident who understands that even before others many seniors with underlying conditions deserve this treatment, I am livid, wrote one woman who signed her note, “A very concerned nurse.”

Other nurse working in private practice emailed: “We are tired, we are angry, we are beyond upset – and we (those working in private practices unable to be offered COVID 19 vaccination) are resentful at Health First and what they have done. We are important, and we do not want to be forgotten about.”

In its statement Monday, Health First, possibly aware of the potential backlash to its decision, said:

“Health First has been developing a distribution plan that will include independent healthcare offices, as well as all individuals over the age of 65. This will likely include additional community outreach, as well as centralized geographical locations. We understand many groups and individuals are anxious to receive the vaccine, and Health First is prepared when that time comes.”

The company said it will likely exhaust its current supply by Wednesday, and that due to the health system’s high use of the vaccine, it will likely receive prioritization for further shipments.

A plan for vaccinating the public in Brevard is not yet clear. Brevard County Emergency Management’s webpage as of Monday afternoon simply stated that the vaccine was only available to health workers and long-term care facility residents: “As more doses become available, groups will be added, and information on how to receive it will be provided. Thank you for your patience.”

Officials at Melbourne Regional Medical Center, Rockledge Regional Medical Center and Parrish Medical Center said Dec. 22 they expected to receive shipments of the vaccine by the end of last week, but have not confirmed whether they received the promised doses.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines have both proven 95% effective at preventing people from displaying COVID-19 symptoms after the two shots are completed. It’s not known whether the vaccine will halt transmission, meaning vaccinated health workers may still be capable of passing the virus onto those around them.

Desantis’s latest executive order issued Wednesday asserted that Florida residents age 65 and older would be first in line for the next phase of the vaccine. It fell out of step with CDC guidelines, which include first responders and other frontline essential workers in the second wave.

Along with the push to vaccinate health workers, Florida has already been vaccinating residents of long-term care facilities. DeSantis’s order reads:

“During this first phase of vaccine administration, all providers administering any COVID-19 vaccine shall only vaccinate the following populations: long-term care facility residents and staff; persons 65 years of age and older; and health care personnel with direct patient contact. Hospital providers, however, also may vaccinate persons who they deem to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.”

In the CDC’s phased timeline, phase 1a includes long term care facility residents and health workers. Phase 1b includes people aged 75 and older and frontline essential workers in fields other than healthcare. Phase 1c includes people over 65, people with high risk medical conditions and non-frontline essential workers.

Phase 2 includes anyone over the age of 16. The Moderna vaccine is approved for use in adults only, which the Pfizer vaccine is approved for people as young as 16.

Health First said Monday afternoon it had vaccinated about 4,500 people and will soon be offering the vaccine more widely, including people 65 and older.

Bailey Gallion is the business and development reporter for FLORIDA TODAY. Contact Gallion at bgallion@floridatoday.com or 321-242-3786.