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News about coronavirus in Florida and around the world is constantly emerging. It's hard to stay on top of it all but Health News Florida and WUSF can help. Our responsibility at WUSF News is to keep you informed, and to help discern what’s important for your family as you make what could be life-saving decisions.

Seniors In Fort Myers Camp Overnight To Get Vaccine

Syringe held by gloved hands.

In Fort Myers, older people waited in line for hours to get a COVID-19 vaccine. Officials have apologized and say they fixed the problem, but what's next as the state ramps up distribution?

Linda Behan is a 75-year-old woman with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. So when she heard from friends they were going to get a COVID vaccine shot in Fort Myers, she joined their caravan - no carpool for them.

"We're just all skittish, you know, because we're old, and we're vulnerable," Behan said.

Most of the information she's gotten has come from friends, and she'd heard the lines were long.

"Oh, yeah. We brought chairs. We brought food," Behan said. "I mean, we knew it was going to be a wait."

Although health officials have been anticipating a COVID-19 vaccine for a while, some places still seemed unprepared when the doses arrived.

In Fort Myers, elderly vaccination hopefuls waited in long lines, with some people even camping out overnight in lawn chairs.

For Behan, who showed up two hours before vaccinations were scheduled to begin, it was a seven-hour wait. She was No. 572 in line.

Lee County is one of 67 counties in Florida, each with its own system for vaccinating as many people as possible, in spite of the Florida Department of Health having offices in each county. In Lee County, there are no reservations - just first come, first serve. So elderly people lined up for hours, some camping out overnight, which led to a public outcry, putting county manager Roger Desjarlais on defense.

"You know, I got a lot of hate mail in the last couple days," Desjarlais said. "Yeah, I don't think I've ever been called incompetent so many times in — you know, in a string of emails ever in my career."

While the program is administered by the Florida Department of Health, DOH officials in Lee County decided late last week to tap the county for additional logistical support. Desjarlais said he first got involved Saturday.

"That's when we really got to work in earnest," Desjarlais said. "I'm standing this thing up. So now what?"

With no appointment system in place, seniors started planning where to pitch their tents.

"We've told people, don't camp out, don't stand in line. But, you know, we're also not going to arrest people for doing it," Desjarlais said. "I mean, it's their choice. They can do that if they so choose."

Internet-based appointment systems have too many technical issues, Desjarlais said.

"Every county that's done it so far, their website crashes," he said.

Neighboring Collier and Charlotte counties have not reported problems with their reservation systems. Linda Behan says she feels like requiring online reservations could put some at a disadvantage.

"It's more fair to do it this way because you don't have to have a computer or whatever," Behan said. "But people who don't have one could go to the library and whatever. But, you know, you didn't have to be a person that had enough money to have a computer to go there."

To have reservations or just an open call to seniors to show up for a shot is one of many things that's been left up to individual counties. And little additional information seems to be flowing from the state.

"Our information on the supply chain is so limited, I can't even - it's hard to describe," Desjarlais said. "And we are absolutely in the dark."

The supply chain begins at the federal level, which distributes the vaccine to states. The Florida Department of Health drafted its COVID vaccination plan back in October. It called for first responders and health care workers to receive their inoculation along with long-term care residents and employees.

But a December 23 executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis added all people 65 and older to that first group, throwing a last-minute curveball to counties operating on the original priority list.

After the long lines in the first week of its vaccine rollout, Desjarlais said the county is working on a reservation system to launch possibly sometime next week.

And after seven hours in line for her first shot, Linda Behan says that she hopes the lines won't be so long for her follow-up shot in 28 days.

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