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Confusion At FEMA Vaccine Site After Eligibility For Higher Education Employees Rescinded

Cars lined up at FEMA COVID-19 vaccination site in Tampa. Staff member in yellow vest directs traffic.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Cars lined up down the block on Friday to enter the FEMA vaccination site in Tampa, but vehicles aren't required.

Many higher education employees in the Tampa Bay area had learned over the past few days that they were permitted to be vaccinated at the federally-run site in Tampa. That changed on Monday.

After being eligible for COVID-19 vaccinations at federally-supported sites for a few days, higher education employees were being turned away on Monday.

Many were surprised to learn over the weekend that they were eligible to receive shots at federally-supported sites like the Tampa Greyhound Track.

No official notice had been given but message boards lit up and employees of institutions like the University of South Florida and Hillsborough Community College went to the Tampa site with identifications in hand.

Some were still able to get vaccinated early Monday, but by noon, employees of colleges and universities were being turned away at the Tampa site. They were told that their eligibility changed at 7 a.m. Monday morning.

FEMA officials were also confused about the change.

After initially saying on Monday morning that all faculty and staff at the state’s colleges and universities were eligible to receive a vaccine at the federally-run sites, FEMA spokeswoman Hallie Anderson changed course.

She told a reporter that the eligibility changed at 7 a.m. Monday but could not say why.

There may have been some initial confusion about who was eligible based on comments from the governor, Anderson said.

“These are federally-supported sites so the state dictates the eligibility criteria,” she said. “Once the governor opened it up to teachers of all ages, that of course created the question about higher education. I’m not sure when it changed to go from one thing to another.”

During a press conference last week, Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged all school employees, regardless of age, were being permitted to receive vaccines at federally-run sites.

This came after the Biden Administration told states to prioritize educators and child care workers for vaccines to accelerate the opening of schools.

"My challenge to all states, territories and the District of Columbia is this - we want every educator, school staff member, child care worker to receive at least one shot by the end of the month of March," President Joe Biden announced last week.

Pharmacies including CVS and Walmart, that are part of the federal pharmacy program immediately opened vaccines to pre-K-12 school employees and childcare workers of all ages. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website that outlines the program does not mention higher education staff.

DeSantis did not change his mandate that only school employees 50 or older would be eligible at state-run sites.

When asked directly about higher education employees last week, DeSantis said he preferred to lower the overall age of eligibility from 65 to 60 rather than make decisions based on occupation.

Hillsborough County opted to open up eligibility to all K-12 school employees.

Federally-supported sites like the one in Tampa, and reportedly Orlando, also offered the vaccine to college and university staff.

Anderson could not say why the FEMA sites stopped offering vaccines to employees of colleges and universities on Monday morning.

“We’re waiting on guidance from the state to see if that is a group that is going to remain ineligible or if it is going to reverse again and go back,” she said.

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