(TNS) - Feb. 4—As Florida's vaccine rollout for seniors 65 and older continues into its second month, the kinks that caused problems early on are being worked out.
Guidance for how to set up second doses is supposed to be streamlined. New lanes are being planned to augment capacity at drive-in sites where lines have been so long that some seniors have run out of gas waiting. A statewide portal has begun centralizing sign-ups and there are more phone numbers to call for help.
But the changes aren't consistent between county-run sites and the state, leaving some people seeking vaccines confused, waiting in uncomfortably long lines and, in some cases, being turned away for not having gone through the right protocols to get their shots.
Last Wednesday, Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, which is run by the state, started administering second doses and continued with first shots, too — using a single lane for both. Since then, hundreds of seniors have been stranded for hours inside their cars, waiting to get either dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. On Friday, many were turned away, including 92-year-old Rosalba Garces — even though her card from her first appointment instructed her to come back that Friday to get her follow-up shot.
But like many others, she wasn't given an appointment at a specific time.
"When my grandmother was rejected, my mother called me frantic, screaming, crying, and I could tell she was very distressed. She could barely speak trying to explain that my grandmother was being rejected," Garces' granddaughter, Jennifer Pratt, wrote in an email to the Miami Herald.
She said her grandmother and mother waited for four hours before learning her grandmother wouldn't be getting a shot.
"I could hear the staff telling she needed to move out of the line and leave," Pratt said.
After seeing the chaos that erupted Friday, the state changed its policy at Hard Rock Stadium. Appointments are still required, but people who received their first dose at Hard Rock and have not received a call about their second dose can return for the next dose if its been at least 21 days since their first shot. They will need to show a government-issued ID and their vaccination card. Even though that won't help with the long lines, it will prevent people like Garces from being rejected after a long wait.
Garces, and presumably many others, did not hear from the state about the policy change. But Garces returned to Hard Rock Monday at about 5:40 a.m. without an appointment — and was able to get her second shot at 8:55 a.m.
Mike Jachles, chair of the Florida Association of Public Information Officers, said Wednesday that it can take about two weeks after you get your first dose for the state to call and schedule your booster shot. He said the call comes from a phone number starting with 786, and operators will attempt to get through about three times. If no one answers, the worker will leave a voicemail with detailed instructions.
When asked about the people who showed up, but never got a call to schedule their second dose, Jachles said that with such a large vaccination effort across the state, it's "inevitable people will fall through the cracks."
The state-run site's new appointment policy, however, is not the same in other places like Miami-Dade and Broward counties.
At Miami-Dade's Tropical Park, the site now designated for second-dose vaccines, those who show up must have an appointment for their second dose, confirmed by a call or text made by a county employee.
In Broward County, those who received their first dose under the new state appointment scheduling system will be contacted to schedule their second dose appointment. They should not show up without one. But individuals who receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine under the old appointment system should return to the same site on the date written on their CDC vaccination card, without necessarily being scheduled for an appointment.
Instead of requesting an appointment online, front-line healthcare workers and seniors 65 and older in Broward can now call 866-201-6313. The number for the hearing impaired is 833-476-1526. Anyone who visits the original appointment scheduling website browardcovidvaccine.com, which crashed consistently when it went live last month, will receive a message redirecting them to call the phone lines instead.
The confusion and change baffled many who were seeking both first and second doses in Broward, leading at least 10 people to contact the Herald, reporting they were turned away from vaccine sites for not having the appropriate confirmation information.
Long lines persist
To work on the problem of long lines at Hard Rock, Florida Division of Emergency Management spokesman Jason Mahon said Monday that members from the state agency had been sent there to "address site logistics, staff capabilities and to analyze the ability to expand the number of lanes for second dose vaccinations."
He said the state will continue "to make adjustments" at the Hard Rock to accommodate all the people coming there, so they can get their shots "in a timely manner."
Previously, there were two separate vaccine locations at the Hard Rock Stadium, one for testing and one for vaccinations. Over the coming days, staff will be reconfiguring the layout to meld the two. By doing this, there will now be seven lanes that can be used for either testing or vaccinations, depending on which has more demand at any given time.
The state aims to have the site fully reconfigured by 8 a.m. Friday.
The long lines left seniors like Elaine Cohen, 87, "dehydrated, hungry, exhausted and in need of a bathroom," according to her daughter, Ronnie Cohen. She had burned through half of her gas tank.
The elder Cohen drove to Miami from Boca Raton Tuesday at around 11 a.m. It wasn't until after 4 p.m. that she got her shot.
"Even if she had wanted to use the port-a-potty at the stadium, she couldn't abandon her car," her daughter wrote the Herald in an email.
The Miami-Dade run sites haven't had similar issues with long lines, according to county spokeswoman Rachel Johnson, because the county designated "first dose" and "second dose" specific sites. The county does not plan on adding lanes, since it doesn't have a same capacity issue.
Advice from the top
The main advice from those who run the sites is for people to show up at the time of their appointment, not earlier. The clog of cars arriving early is one of the reasons the lines jam up, officials say.
"We are once again asking that people do not show up for their vaccinations more than 30 minutes before their appointment," said Todd Templin, a spokesman for Broward County. "We will not run out of vaccine later in the day. Arriving too early will create more traffic and longer wait times for everyone."
But even those who took the county's advice say they won't be doing it again when their second dose comes around. Willard Whitelock, 65, drove to Markham Park in Sunrise shortly before his appointment time because he heard on television that people should not arrive too early. But by the time he got there, the line was already backed up. He ran low on gas and had to turn around to fill up his tank. By the time he got back, it was several more hours before he got his vaccine.
When it comes time for his second dose, he plans to flout the recommendations.
"I heard one guy say his neighbor got there at 7 a.m. and went right through," said Whitelock, who lives in Cooper City. "I played the game but at this point ... well, it's a six-hour wait."
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