TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – As seniors lined up at coronavirus vaccination sites and frustrations mounted over their inability to make appointments for life-saving injections, Gov. Ron DeSantis warned hospitals against stockpiling vaccinations and urged them to work more quickly to administer vaccines to Floridians who are 65 and older.
“The light's at the end of the tunnel,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Orlando on Monday, adding that hospitals that don't meet vaccination goals will see their allotment of vaccines reduced and redistributed to other providers.
“I do not want to see a vaccine sitting around not being used when you could be putting a shot in an arm,” he said.
Meanwhile, the first five Florida hospitals to start inoculating their frontline workers three weeks ago began administering booster shots this week to those same employees.
As of Monday, more than 260,000 Floridians had been vaccinated, most of them health care workers and first responders — although an increasing number are seniors 65 years and older, whom the governor has made a key demographic for vaccinations.
The state has received more than 960,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — which means that 700,000 doses are sitting in freezers waiting to be injected into the arms of Floridians.
Both vaccines require two doses — an initial inoculation and a booster shot weeks later. Some hospitals, out of caution, may be reluctant to immediately use their entire stockpile because of uncertainty over the future supply of the vaccines.
About 83% of those who have died from the disease in Florida have been older than 65.
Florida has one of the nation’s oldest populations with 4.4 million of the state’s 21 million people 65 years or older.
The governor spoke at Orlando Health South Seminole Hospital, where 4,000 people were expected to be vaccinated by day’s end.
DeSantis has ordered hospitals to inform state officials how they plan to offer vaccinations to the public.
Mary Mayhew, chief executive officer of the Florida Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals were “working tirelessly” to serve the community and roll out the vaccinations.
“Hospitals are absolutely committed to efficiently administering the vaccines,” Mayhew said, noting that “the vast majority of the vaccine just arrived within the last week and a half prior to two holidays.”
During both news conferences, DeSantis asserted that 80% of the doses delivered to the state thus far have been sent to hospitals, but his office later clarified that the governor was referring to the state's initial shipment of the Pfizer vaccine. The state has since received hundreds of thousands of additional doses and only half the vaccines received to date have gone to hospitals.
Some of the additional doses received by hospitals will be used for the second round of shots, which is required for the inoculations to achieve the highest level of efficacy.
During DeSantis' news conference in Miami, Carlos Migoya, the president and CEO of Jackson Health System, said some hospital workers — the first of about 5,000 associated with the Miami-based health care system — began receiving their booster shots on Monday.
“The focus right now has been health care workers and people over 65. Once we get to a big percentage of those ... we'll open it to the next at-risk population,” Migoya said.
“We are giving the vaccine as fast as we get it. We’re not holding back any vaccine because the supply is coming," he said.
The governor's response to the outbreak is certain to loom large in his bid for reelection, and Democrats will surely seize on the governor's missteps.
“With this flawed vaccine rollout, Governor DeSantis has once again failed to rise to the occasion,” said Florida Democratic Party Chair Terrie Rizzo.
“Instead of taking responsibility for the disastrous rollout, Governor DeSantis is blaming hospitals and doctors for rollout problems — saying that he will take away vaccine allotments, when he is the one without a plan," Rizzo asserted.
During his news conferences, DeSantis said he intends to convert some COVID-19 testing sites to vaccination sites, recruit places of worship in underserved communities to help vaccinate seniors of color and hire 1,000 more nurses to help with injections.
“We believe the sooner the better. There’s no time to waste,” he said.
Still, the rollout to the senior citizens has been fraught with complications, especially in larger counties.
Various county health departments had challenges and problems in their online reservations system on Monday. Pinellas County opened its reservation system at noon, but the portal experienced trouble at that time. In Hillsborough County, the registration website for seniors wanting the COVID-19 vaccine had crashed apparently due to the high volume of traffic.
In Broward County, the signup website crashed repeatedly. On Monday, the county’s health department said all of its slots — 26,465 of them — for people 65 and older are full for now.
“This is a very difficult logistical operation,” DeSantis said. “I’m not going to say that there’s not been any problems, but I think all in all, you know, the distribution has gone probably better than what we could have reasonably expected.”
On Monday, the state Department of Health added more than 11,200 new confirmed coronavirus cases to its tally, bringing the state's total to nearly 1.4 million. With more 100 new deaths, the state's death toll surpassed 22,000.