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Florida's Vaccine Rollout Rife With Snags And Inequities

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis watches as nurse Christine Philips (left) administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to Vera Leip, 88, a resident of John Knox Village, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla.
Marta Lavandier
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis watches as nurse Christine Philips (left) administers the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19 to Vera Leip, 88, a resident of John Knox Village, Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020, in Pompano Beach, Fla.

Scarcely a day goes by that Gov. Ron DeSantis isn't holding a news conference somewhere in Florida, talking about his policy of providing the COVID-19 vaccine to "seniors first." The state now leads the nation in vaccinating senior citizens. In a state with 4.5 million people 65 and over, that's good news. The bad news is that in Florida, as elsewhere, the demand far exceeds the supply of vaccine, creating a first-come-first-served process that has left some groups out.

This week, at an event in Jacksonville, DeSantis announced a milestone. "By the end of this month," DeSantis said, "a COVID-19 vaccine will have been offered to every resident and staff member at all of Florida's nearly 4000 long-term care facilities."

Florida was one of the first states to make the vaccine available to everyone 65 and over. DeSantis says it makes sense because of mortality data. Eighty percentof COVID-19 deaths are among people in that age group. In a state where seniors make up one of the most important voting blocs, it's also good politics.

Office says milestone claim premature

DeSantis, a Republican with close ties with former President Donald Trump, sometimes brings a partisan edge to his comments on the state's COVID-19 response. This week, for example, he traded barbs with President Biden's spokesperson about the state's vaccine supply. OnFox News last week he took a shot at House speaker Nancy Pelosi and then touted Florida's vaccination program. "Today is the day that we're going to do our 1 millionth senior in the state of Florida," DeSantis said. "I have a World War II veteran here that you guys are going to see get the shot." Fox and Friends hosts watched as 100-year-old Henry Sayler got his shot on live TV.

Later, DeSantis' office said it was a bit premature. It would be a few more days before Florida hit that milestone. Still, some 22% of Florida seniors have received at least one shot, more DeSantis saysthan any other state in the nation.

But that's not to say it's been a smooth rollout. Many are frustrated there's no single registry for those eligible to receive the vaccine. Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an epidemiologist at Florida International University says, "It's been very difficult for elderly people to deal with these multiple websites and having them fill up immediately. There's just been a lot of confusion."

On member station WLRN's South Florida Roundupshow, a caller who identified herself as Connie from Margate said she was able to get the vaccine only because she got a tip that a local site had a few extra shots available. "And while I'm grateful for it, I just don't think this is the way things should happen. There's a lot of unfairness in. ... how people can get appointments."

Vaccination system favors the wealthy

The haphazard vaccination system, which varies county by county, is tilted toward those who can monitor social media and book appointments online before the slots run out. It's a system that so far has favored the wealthy. An analysis by the Miami Herald found the zip code in the county with the highest vaccination rate was Fisher Island, a wealthy enclave where half of the residents have gotten shots. The lowest was Opa-locka, where more than 40% of residents live in poverty.

Florida's Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried says, "We have seen numbers that should be morally shocking." Fried, the only Democrat holding a statewide office, says vaccine distribution has left out many African-Americans. In Miami-Dade County, where African Americans make up nearly 17% of the population, state records show they've received just 6% of vaccinations. "That is completely unacceptable," Fried says.

"What we've got going on right now is not working because we don't have a state-wide plan." State and county health officials say they're working to close the gap by organizing vaccination drives with Black churches.

Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava says Florida started using an online registration system for appointments because it got the vaccine out quickly. But she adds, "We need to slow it down and make sure we have an equitable solution."

Miami-Dade and some other counties have set up vaccine appointment phone lines for those without Internet connections. Mayor Levine Cava and county commissioners also now can reserve vaccinations for individuals and groups who may have trouble getting appointments otherwise.

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As NPR's Miami correspondent, Greg Allen reports on the diverse issues and developments tied to the Southeast. He covers everything from breaking news to economic and political stories to arts and environmental stories. He moved into this role in 2006, after four years as NPR's Midwest correspondent.