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Florida's decision to vaccinate seniors first causes distribution 'chaos'

In other coronavirus news: A Wisconsin hospital worker destroyed 500 doses, California is overwhelmed with a hospitalization surge, and the rich got richer during the pandemic.
Image: People wait in line at Lakes Park Regional Library to recieve the COVID-19 vaccine in Fort Myers
Tom, 69, and Judy Barrett, 67, of Marco Island, Fla., wait in line to be vaccinated early Wednesday at Lakes Park Regional Library in Fort Myers.Andrew West / The News-Press/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters

The decision to greenlight Covid-19 inoculations for senior citizens in Florida has spurred long lines at vaccination sites and a deluge of people crashing county computer systems and hospital phone banks to schedule their shots, experts said Thursday.

And it's clear that the supply isn't close to keeping up with the extraordinary demand.

Gov. Ron DeSantis "decided that Florida residents over the age of 65 would be given priority over essential workers," Aubrey Jewett, a longtime Florida politics watcher and associate professor of political science at the University of Central Florida, said by email. "This is a different priority from the federal recommendation but justified by the fact that Florida has the 2nd largest percentage of seniors in the country (about 20%) and that people over the age of 65 make up about 80% of the fatalities from Covid-19."

But while DeSantis and his administration have taken on a "coordinating role" and made sure that the first doses went to front-line health care workers and nursing home residents, the decisions about how to embark on phase two of vaccine distribution are made on the county level, Jewett said.

Image: Vaccination line in Florida
Hundreds wait in line to be vaccinated at Lakes Park Regional Library in Fort Myers, Fla., on Wednesday.Andrew West / The News-Press/USA TODAY NETWORK via Reuters

Dr. Sadiya Khan, an epidemiologist at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, said: "This is such an important point and one where each state and each county left alone as an island is a setup for an unmitigated disaster, inequitable delivery, and inefficiency that could lead to more preventable deaths and hospitalizations. The lack of an infrastructure for a vaccine that we've literally been planning and known was coming for months is wholeheartedly disappointing but not unexpected."

In other coronavirus developments:

  • NBC News has confirmed that the U.S. has reported over 20 million confirmed cases of the coronavirus. The 20,009,072 cases and 345,699 deaths due to Covid-19 are both world-leading numbers.
  • A Wisconsin hospital worker was fired after what a hospital investigation concluded was the deliberate destruction of more than 500 doses of vaccine. The motive was not immediately clear; police and the FBI are investigating.
  • Doctors and nurses in Southern California say they are reaching a breaking point as a "relentless" surge of new cases overwhelms hospitals and intensive care units.
  • The rich got richer during the pandemic, while millions of Americans' savings vanished and many businesses were destroyed.
  • The U.S. economy continued to struggle as the number of Americans filing initial weekly jobless claims totaled 787,000 last week.
  • President-elect Joe Biden plans to hold a nationwide memorial honoring those who have died from the coronavirus the day before he is sworn into office next month.
  • Sen. David Perdue of Georgia, a Republican facing a tight runoff next week, will have to quarantine after a member of his re-election team tested positive for Covid-19.
  • Food banks and hospitals in the Mississippi Delta have been stretched thin as the crisis has spread through the region.
  • Rep.-elect María Elvira Salazar, R-Fla., will miss her swearing-in ceremony Sunday in Washington because she tested positive for the coronavirus.
  • Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton has sued the city of Austin after local officials placed new Covid-19 restrictions on dining services for the New Year's weekend.

The first-come, first-served vaccine rollout this week in Lee County, in southwestern Florida, resulted in an embarrassing national spectacle — hundreds of senior citizens, many swaddled in blankets and winter coats, camping out overnight in long lines at testing sites that quickly ran out of vaccines.

"This reminded me of pre-internet days of getting into a long line the night before rock concert tickets for the Prince 'Purple Rain' tour went on sale back in the 1980s and hoping they did not sell out before I got to the window to purchase mine," Jewett said.

Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told reporters Wednesday that changes were being made.

"We are not sure just yet, but our goal is to have a reservation system available some time within a week so that we don't have 2,000 showing up at a site," he said.

In Broward County, north of Miami, senior citizens seeking to be vaccinated this week swamped phone lines and administrators stopped taking appointments after they announced that they were booked through February.

The website of the state Health Department's Broward office also crashed because it was unable to keep up with the high volume of inquiries.

Just south of Tampa, Sarasota resident Christine Maxwell said in a letter to The Tampa Bay Times, "It's absolute chaos in Sarasota County."

Maxwell wrote that five hours after she tried to schedule an appointment for a shot, the county Health Department suddenly announced that it would start vaccinating people over 65 "but that all the appointments were already taken."

"They gave the process for paperwork needed to get a vaccine as further supplies come in and noted that an appointment is needed, but shared no information about how to get an appointment," Maxwell wrote. "What the hell?"

The DeSantis administration did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the various distribution snafus and for data about how many doses have been distributed.

During a news conference Wednesday, DeSantis conceded that there had been glitches in getting the vaccine out.

"There's obviously a crush of people that are interested," he said. "Demand exceeds supply. On the one hand, that's a good thing, because this was something we wanted people to have confidence in."

Jewett agreed.

"While this is a frustrating situation, it can be viewed as potentially a positive sign that lots of people want to get the vaccine after early reports that many people might be unwilling or reticent to get it," he said.

DeSantis, a Republican who took office in 2019 with the strong backing of President Donald Trump, has been harshly criticized for Florida's slow response to the pandemic and for having publicly downplayed the danger.

In April, when states like New York were being ravaged while Florida was reporting far fewer cases, DeSantis claimed victory over the virus while on a visit with Trump at the White House.

"We haven't seen an explosion of new cases," DeSantis said April 29, the day he signed an executive order to begin reopening Florida after less than two months in quarantine.

But as of Thursday, Florida had the third most Covid-19 cases in the country, 1.3 million, according to the latest NBC News data. By contrast, New York had 966,384.

As the experts weighed in on the vaccine distribution issues, the state Health Department closed the book on 2020 by reporting 17,192 new confirmed coronavirus cases, which would be the largest single-day total since the pandemic began.

And while New York still leads the country with 38,636 deaths due to Covid-19, most of the 21,856 coronavirus deaths in Florida were reported after DeSantis loosened pandemic restrictions.

"Governor DeSantis is certainly taking a more active role when it comes to vaccines than he has taken in setting statewide rules for mask or other types of Covid restrictions," Jewett said.

Also, Jewett said, DeSantis is hoping to be re-elected in a couple of years.

"Politically there is widespread agreement among Republican and Democrats and Trump supporters and opponents to make the Covid-19 vaccine available as quickly as possible," Jewett said. "Thus politically, Governor DeSantis has every reason to be involved and supportive and by most signs he has been.

"The rollout has not been perfect, but in my view, it has not been from lack of effort from the governor's office," Jewett said.