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Locals Seek To Ease Frustration Over Vaccine


Despite the addition of distribution sites for the COVID-19 vaccine, Florida’s crush in demand has made it difficult to land a coveted appointment.

Locally, there’s hope that a planned statewide appointment system, and more doses, will ease what’s been a frustrating process for seniors and local officials trying to get the vaccine to them.  

“Initially, seniors were very excited that they were prioritized by the governor, and rightfully so,” said Josh Newby, marketing and communications director for the Council on Aging of West Florida.

“But since then, that excitement has transformed into a bit of annoyance and frustration over the signup process.”

To date, it’s been hard for all individuals 65 and older to land an appointment, but Newby says the Council on Aging is particularly concerned about the area’s vulnerable, low-income seniors. He says a good portion of them do not own a computer or smart phone or aren’t “savvy”’ enough on the Internet to compete for vaccine appointments online, which is the primary way to get an appointment.

In response, he says the phone lines at their office blew up with seniors seeking help.

“People, they were just reaching out to us at the Council on Aging for help understanding this process,” Newby said of the many calls received.

“And, we knew what everyone else knew at that point, which was you basically have to get lucky via an online portal. We told them we’ll help you sign up if there’re reservations available, but you just have to get lucky, keep refreshing that page.”

Newby says he supports the idea of a statewide appointment system that’s now in the works, to make the process easier.

“And, I would say you know going forward, it would be really helpful if there was a centralized phone number that could place seniors in an available reservation, whether that’s at Publix, or Ascension or the Health Department. No more of this check the Publix website today, check the Ascension website tomorrow,” he declared. “I think it all needs to be centralized and slot those seniors in where there’s an available reservation.” 

Credit Screenshot by WUWF Public Media
On Sunday, appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine at Publix stores were booked throughout the state.

“The state is looking to set up a state registration and phone bank to do registrations for every county throughout the state. I think that’s a few weeks away from being able to really happen,” said Brad Baker, Public Safety Director for Santa Rosa County. On Friday, the county shut down its own phone line after a crush of calls for COVID-19 appointments at the county health department.

“So, we just really want to take a week or so...then, we’ll re-evaluate,” Baker added.

For now, there’s just no more capacity, with all available appointments filled through the end of the month and a wait-list over 63-hundred.

“We need to focus on getting those 6,300-plus scheduled and with our current rate of vaccinations, that’s probably, 4-6 months out,” Baker warned.

“So, we don’t want to set an expectation of people who think, ‘Oh, I got through on the phone, I’m going to get an appointment in the next few weeks.’ It’s just not going to happen. We are booked out.”

Ironically, in the scramble to get an appointment, some individuals have managed to double book, which Santa Rosa officials found out at a recent popup vaccination clinic.

“For example, we had 76 out of the 500, when we went to schedule them that were already vaccinated. So, now we’re scrambling to find 76 more to replace them in a short notice,” said Baker, adding that the number of no shows eventually topped 190, creating a (re)scheduling nightmare.

Individuals are encouraged to cancel appointments they no longer need, especially given the large number of people still clambering for their chance to get the vaccine.

“We’re just asking for people to be very patient,” said Marie Mott, administrator for the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County.

“There’s a great demand out there and the supply is limited and so I think that’s going to be an issue for a while that as appointments are opened they’re going to go quickly.”

Like Santa Rosa, the Escambia health unit is making an adjustment, by temporarily closing its COVID-19 Vaccination Request Form, to deal with its own very extensive wait list.

“What we want to do is be able to work down that list of names and get people scheduled in before we add more names to our list to call,” Mott explained. “(That’s) because we don’t want people to be waiting forever, or what seems like forever, to get a call if the list grows too big for us to get to in a reasonable time.”     

While their online Vaccination Request Form is closed for now, individuals with questions can still call the FDOH-Escambia COVID-19 phone line, 850-595-6500 Option 6.

Meantime, the agency is working to identify and implement a more efficient solution for gauging interest and scheduling appointments for the vaccine.

As supply becomes available, staff will resume scheduling appointments and encourages eligible seniors, to take advantage of opportunities offered through other partners to get vaccinated. Of course, this all hinges on more vaccines becoming available.

“It is a supply issue right now,” declared Santa Rosa Public Safety Director Brad Baker.

“They have indicated to us that they anticipate over the next weeks to see an increase in the amount they get, but we can’t commit to that until we have the vaccines in hand.”

Baker says he and other officials from the region are doing their part to campaign for more doses, so they can chip away at their wait-lists.

He's counting on an expected shipment of 1,500 doses this week, noting that without the allotment the county won't be able to honor upcoming appointments.

As of midnight Friday, the COVID-19 vaccine had been given to nearly 938,000 people in Florida, including more than 10,000 in Santa Rosa, over 14,000 in Escambia, nearly 76-hundred in Okaloosa and almost 3,000 in Walton. 

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.