Turnout lower than expected as FEMA COVID-19 vaccine site opens in Orlando

Valencia College’s West Campus providing 2,000 jabs per day

Turnout lower than expected as FEMA COVID-19 vaccine site opens in Orlando

ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – A new federally supported coronavirus vaccination site opened Wednesday at Valencia College’s West Campus, providing 2,000 shots per day to those most vulnerable to the respiratory illness.

As of 5 p.m. on Wednesday 1,500 vaccine doses were administered. FEMA officials said they can administer more.

The majority of the patients on Wednesday were walkups.

The Orlando FEMA site is one of four opening in the state, with the others being in Miami, Jacksonville and Tampa.

The site will operate from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day and is expected to remain open for at least eight weeks, according to the Orlando Police Department.

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On opening day, turnout at FEMA's Orlando COVID-19 vaccine site has been lower than expected, officials say.

Lt. Col. Troy Fisher, from the U.S. Army, said he has about 100 soldiers trained and ready to help provide residents with virus protection. Fisher, who has spent most of his military career in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he’s never been part of a mission like this one before.

“I am just as excited to do this as anything else I’ve done for the military because this is taking care of the U.S. population. And so, we should all be proud about that. And we’re doing it in such a way that I’m working left and right with the state of Florida and FEMA, and that’s not something I’ve ever been a part of either and so that interagency, intergovernmental effort, it really shows that we’re in this together and we’re all working toward the same goal,” Fisher said.

When residents arrive, they’ll first go to a tent where they’ll undergo a temperature screening and answer some health questions to make sure they aren’t experiencing COVID-19 symptoms. They’ll also be asked if they pre-registered on myvaccine.fl.gov and based on their response, will move to the next tent to either get registered or continue to the next part of the process.

From there, residents can expect to have their information verified and answer some questions to make sure they’re actually eligible. Finally, they’ll move to a tent where soldiers administer the shots. A separate, final tent has been set up where residents will wait during the 15- to 30-minute observation period, depending on their medical history.

Fisher estimates that the average person will spend about 45 minutes from the first tent to the final tent, not counting how long they may have to wait in line to start the process.

There is a chance cars could start lining up early, but Fisher anticipates that people won’t be turned away due to capacity issues until later in the day.

The site will start out administering the Pfizer formula, although that could change as time goes on.

In addition, there will also be two mobile units that will go into underserved communities and provide 1,000 shots daily directly to the residents there.

The units will make their first stop from Wednesday to Saturday at the Engelwood Neighborhood Center on La Costa Drive then move to Kelly Park in Apopka from Sunday to March 10. The hours for those satellite sites will be 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and walk ups will be accepted.

There are plans to send the mobile units into Osceola, Polk and Highlands counties as well once leaders can come up with a list of neighborhoods that meet the criteria determined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Social Vulnerability Index.

The new Valencia site opens the same day Gov. Ron DeSantis’ new executive order to expand vaccine eligibility goes into effect. Starting Wednesday, law enforcement officers who are 50 and older, firefighters 50 and older and K-12 school personnel 50 and older will be allowed to get inoculated.

Those with high-risk pre-existing conditions were also recently given the green light.

Previously, only residents 65 and older were deemed eligible.

Among the first to visit the site was more than 100 Orlando-area first responders, who received their shots on Tuesday as part of a training run to help soldiers prepare for patients. Orlando Police Chief Orlando Rolón also got his first dose on Tuesday.

“It’s been a year since COVID-19 began dramatically changing all of our lives,” Rolón said in a news release. “But throughout the pandemic, the officers of the Orlando Police Department have never stopped answering calls for service. And the opportunity to get vaccinated just helps us continue to answer those calls, protecting the safety of our officers, and the community they serve.”

He estimates that about 50% of his officers are willing to get inoculated, a number he expects will grow.

“As we continue to see the now three vaccines available, being distributed across the nation, as we continue to see the positive things, the outcomes of those vaccinations, I think more and more people will be inclined to participate in the process,” Rolón said.

He said more than 100 Orlando officers have tested positive for COVID-19 in the past year and said they are particularly vulnerable because they can’t always social distance or wear masks.

“These officers have been risking their lives all year long in this COVID pandemic to make sure that our citizens are kept safe, although they themselves have been put in a position where their lives have been compromised. In the nation last year alone, we lost more officers due to COVID than in the line of duty death,” the chief said.