FORT LAUDEDALE, Fla. – Claes Bell repeatedly called his doctor, leaving multiple messages and emails, desperate to get him to sign a state form to allow Bell to get a COVID-19 vaccine before traveling to be at his father's bedside after heart surgery.
But the 39-year-old, who suffers from hypertension, said he couldn’t get through to his doctor and eventually called a private, 24-hour emergency doctors network where he paid $45 for a virtual consult with a doctor who signed the form.
“I wasn’t able to get anyone on the phone. I wasn’t able to get an appointment. I'm privileged. I have the money to pay for that," said Bell, a father of three. “It just sets up a scenario where your outcomes are going to be different depending on your income and employment.”
Currently in Florida, anyone over 60, plus residents and staff of long-term care facilities and health care workers are automatically eligible for the vaccines. Younger patients with underlying conditions such as diabetes and chronic lung disease have been able to get the vaccine at hospitals.
Gov. Ron DeSantis recently also opened it up for younger people with health conditions to get the jab at other vaccination sites, including pharmacies and community centers, but they're required to have their doctor fill out a standard state form.
The form requires little more than a doctor’s signature and is aimed at preventing healthy younger people from jumping the line ahead of people who need the vaccine more urgently. But critics say it's an onerous added barrier for minorities and low-income residents without health insurance or access to a doctor. The criticism has amplified recently as demand among the elderly has slowed at several vaccination sites across the state, which reported 4,727 new positive COVID-19 Tuesday, bringing the total to nearly 2 million. Thirty more residents were reported to have died from the virus, for a total of 32,255.
The inequitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines has been an ongoing challenge for the governor. Of the 3.2 million people who have received one or two doses of the vaccines, less than 6% have been Black — about a third of their share of the state’s population.
Even those like Bell with insurance say they can’t reach their doctors because their offices have been flooded with requests.
In one of Miami’s historically Black neighborhoods, a one-day vaccine clinic on Saturday targeting at-risk groups will have physicians onsite to measure blood pressure and weigh all age groups so they can get the form and shot at the same time.
“The very people who are suffering the greatest from this pandemic — Black and brown communities — are the very ones that are being disenfranchised with this restriction,” said Dr. Tina Carroll-Scott, medical director for the South Miami Children’s Clinic.
Some vaccination sites are enforcing the doctor's note inconsistently, requiring them one day but not the next.
Earlier this month, lawmakers said people with doctors’ notes were turned away at a Miami vaccination site because they didn't have the state form. But later in the day, state lawmakers said doctors’ notes were reportedly also being accepted instead of the form.
Some places, like Jackson Health system in Miami, aren't requiring any form, just verbal confirmation from patients.
Other states, including Georgia, have opened up vaccinations for younger people who merely are required to attest that they have an underlying medical condition.
Patrick Patterson, 34, accompanied his elderly parents to get the vaccine Tuesday at Valencia College in Orlando. His wife is eight months pregnant with his first child and he is fearful of catching the virus and giving it to his wife.
Several others at the site were given the vaccine without the required doctor's form, but Patterson, who has high blood pressure and is obese, was turned away. He doesn't have insurance or access to a primary care doctor.
“You should not have to pay money to see a doctor to get the vaccine,” he said. “There really wasn’t a ton of people there and they still refused.”
Adriana Gomez Licon in Miami contributed to this report.