Florida’s Health Department quietly launched a pilot program of a new telephone appointment system meant to help counties better handle the demand for lifesaving coronavirus vaccines.
Some hospitals, county health departments and vaccination centers were plunged into chaos after Gov. Ron DeSantis announced last month that he would open the vaccines to seniors 65 and older, prompting long lines, crashed websites and disappointment among thousands of Floridians looking to protect themselves against COVID-19.
In a tweet Thursday, Broward County health officials unwittingly announced the “new state appointment system” ahead of state health officials.
For now, the system relies on old-school technology — the telephone — to reserve an appointment for the shot. State officials said a phone system was more suited for seniors, who might be less used to web-based technology and might need more assistance.
During a legislative hearing earlier this month, the state’s director of emergency management, Jared Moskowitz, acknowledged the “chaotic” environment spawned by the release of two vaccines approved by the U.S. government to combat the coronavirus outbreak.
Jason Mahon, the spokesman for the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said the pilot program was actually rolled out in Miami-Dade County last week and later expanded earlier this week to some of the state’s largest counties — Broward, Duval, Hillsborough, and Lee.
“The state is actively collaborating with counties and local officials to launch a system that will include a streamlined vaccination appointment process,” Mahon said. “We will continue to expand this pilot to include more counties in the coming week.”
But even as state health officials — urged on by DeSantis — unveiled the new system and expand vaccination sites, concern remained over whether there is enough vaccines to go around.
On Friday, DeSantis appeared on FOX News with a 100-year-old World War II veteran who got vaccinated during the appearance and who the governor said was the 1 millionth senior to get a shot against the coronavirus. But he later walked back the claim, saying it was symbolic of reaching that goal and that it may take a couple more days to confirm the milestone. His own health department was reporting Thursday that less than 800,000 seniors had received the shot.
DeSantis said at a news conference later in Key Largo that there’s a lag time in reporting the number of shots administered, and that state officials were estimating that the millionth senior would come sometime Friday.
“We’re 800-some thousand that’s been reported as of midnight last night,” DeSantis said. “We really believe that in a few more days as the reports come in, we will actually cross one million 65 and up that will have gotten shots.”
Most of the Democrats on the state’s congressional delegation sent DeSantis a letter expressing “serious concerns with the state’s rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine.”
They asserted that more than 1 million unused vaccines were on “on hold” in Florida, suggesting that the state was not expeditiously administering the doses.
It also chided the governor for confusing and misleading the public on vaccine distribution and availability, adding that there was “a perception of unfairness and political motivation.”
And they faulted the governor and his administration for the poor infrastructure to schedule appointments. State officials had no immediate comment on those assertions.
Jolie Abreu has been trying unsuccessfully to secure a vaccine appointment for her 92-year-old grandmother in Palm Beach County, and she heard that Publix, the state’s largest grocery chain, was opening slots through an online platform Friday at 6 a.m. She logged in exactly at that time, but her screen displayed the site was already full with other customers due to “tremendous demand.”
“I sat there until 7:30 a.m. or so waiting. The smaller counties booked up around 7 a.m.,” Abreu said, adding that other family members had also tried unsuccessfully on Wednesday.
State officials hope that the new appointment system — which is expected to expand to more counties next week — will help address some of the challenges counties and seniors have faced in scheduling shots.
Florida has recorded more than 1.6 million COVID-19 infections, with the number of deaths now approaching 25,000. On Friday morning, there were 6,911 people being treated for the disease in state’s hospitals, according to an online census of hospitals It was the first time that figure was below 7,000 for more than two weeks.
The current winter outbreak is the state’s third major wave of infections since last March, with the worst coming during summer. Hospitalizations have begun ticking downward after plateauing between 7,000 and 8,000. That compares with nearly 10,000 at the height of Florida’s summer wave.
The actual state phone number for vaccine reservations has not yet been officially released.