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In Fall 2020, WUSF began reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida's health care system. Our stories focus on the voices of residents in communities of color and how Florida's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution affects them.WUSF’s reporting on disparities in health care access is funded in part by the COVID-19 Response Initiative of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Limited Supply, Confusion Hamper Efforts To Vaccinate 'Extremely Vulnerable' Floridians Under 65

A woman holds a shot of the coronavirus vaccine
Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County
Only hospital providers are allowed to vaccinate patients deemed "extremely vulnerable" to COVID-19. A state lawmaker wants the governor to authorize county health departments and private pharmacies to do so as well.

Hospitals are allowed to vaccinate high-risk patients who aren't seniors or health workers, but most don't have enough supplies to do so.

Updated Friday at 1p.m. with response from state and launch of new sign-up website.

Certain people with underlying health problems who are younger than 65 are allowed to get coronavirus vaccines in Florida right now, according to the executive order Gov. Ron DeSantis signed in December.

But there's confusion as to who qualifies and how they can get their shots.

The state says hospital providers can vaccinate individuals they deem are "extremely vulnerable" to COVID-19.

The policy is rarely being applied in the state, according to State Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith (D-Orlando.)

“And if it is, the protocol for what defines a comorbidity is something that has been kept internal within the hospitals and not really something that the public has been able to understand to see whether or not themselves or their loved ones qualify," he said.

Smith wrote an open letter to hospitals this week asking them to offer what’s left of their vaccine supply to vulnerable patients struggling to access protection.

He said he was encouraged to see Jackson Health System announce that it will start vaccinating patients who are 55 and older, live in Miami-Dade County and have one of seven health conditions. The list includes some heart problems and organ transplants, among others.

Smith said he hopes more hospitals will follow suit with similar strategies, and he suggested including cancer patients and adults with Down syndrome.

“Now one of the challenges we've run into is that it's not entirely clear, because the state has not released information, exactly how much inventory on hand our hospitals still have as it relates to first doses that could be available,” he said.

Supply is a problem

Smith followed up on Thursday evening after he said he learned from state health officials that there are about 40,000 available first doses in 300 or so hospitals, but it’s unclear where those are located.

Major hospitals including Tampa General, Orlando Health, Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, Sarasota Memorial and HCA West Florida facilities told WUSF they don’t have any more first doses.

They said they’re focused on getting second doses to health workers and community members who received initial injections at their sites.

“We do not have sufficient supply at this time to schedule any more first doses, and we have not been notified when or if we will receive future supplies,” said Kim Savage, spokesperson for Sarasota Memorial Hospital.

Rep. Smith said it seems like the state is shifting its vaccination strategy to give local health departments and private pharmacies like Publix more control, although he added he’d be surprised if hospitals never again received new supply.

But he said given the lack of available doses at hospitals right now, it’s time for Gov. DeSantis to revise his executive order so that county health departments and retail partners can also vaccinate high-risk individuals under 65.

“So we can really begin opening the doors of access to folks who really need it,” he said.

Responding to a request for comment, Samantha Bequer, spokesperson for the Florida Division of Emergency Management said on Friday, "At time this, hospital providers are the entities designated to vaccinate individuals who they have deemed to be extremely vulnerable to COVID-19. "

"Individuals who are not frontline health care workers or 65 and older would need to receive the vaccine from their hospital provider," she added.

BayCare Health System, which has also paused new vaccinations due to limited supply, said the Agency for Health Care Administration reached out to them and other organizations on Wednesday asking to help vaccinate extremely vulnerable patients under 65.

“We are working now to determine how we can be a partner in safely and efficiently supporting this request,” said BayCare spokesperson Vjollca Hysenlika.

On Friday the state launched a new sign-up website for vaccines that lists "individuals deemed extremely vulnerable to COVID-19" as a category of residents who can get on a waitlist.

WUSF went through the sign-up process to see if there were questions about health conditions. There were not.

Registration involved entering name, birth date and zip code. It also posed yes or no questions about being a frontline health worker, a Florida resident, an EPI-pen user (to catch people who may have allergic reactions to vaccines) and someone seeking their first dose.

After filling out the information, which included Hillsborough County as a preferred location and a birth year for someone under 65 (and 55) WUSF was directed to a page saying," At this time based on state and county vaccination priorities, we are only scheduling appointments for people 65 years or older."

The site confirmed a successful sign-up for email updates from the state about vaccines, but it is still unclear how extremely vulnerable patients younger than 65 will be able to get on the waitlist.

One possibility may be over phone. Each county has a hotline residents can call. That may give vulnerable patients an opportunity to explain their situation and pre-register for an appointment.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.