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'We're Losing Time': Expert Urges Florida To Expand COVID-19 Vaccine Eligibility To More People

Two female health workers sit at a folding table preparing syringes with coronavirus vaccines at a Hillsborough County vaccination site.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
Florida health workers and long-term care facility residents were supposed to get vaccinated before anyone else. But when the state opened up vaccines to anyone 65 and older, it made accessing the limited supplies even harder.

Primarily restricting vaccine access to older Floridians while the virus continues to spread puts essential workers at risk and gives variants a chance to gain a foothold in the community, says infectious disease expert Dr. Glenn Morris.

Some infectious disease experts say Florida's efforts to restrict who is eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine are starting to be counterproductive.

Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini talked with Dr. Glenn Morris, Director of the University of Florida's Emerging Pathogens Institute, who said it's time to make it easier for people to get shots.

Colombini: We’re seeing some county and federally supported vaccination sites are not reaching capacity these days.

Morris: One of the problems that is starting to emerge is that, because the rules are so complex, and they vary between what the federal government is saying and what the governor is saying, is that there seems to be a lot of confusion.

Nobody quite knows who can get the vaccine, who can't get the vaccine. Because of that, we're sort of losing time. I mean, counties are ending up with surplus amounts of vaccine.

We're not quite at the point, but we're starting to reach the point where the shift needs to go from, you know, a strict, “Okay if you meet these six criteria, yes, we'll give you a vaccine,” to saying, “Okay, we really need to get out there,” and the ultimate goal here is to vaccinate a high percentage of the U.S. population so that we get herd immunity.

There's something to be said at this point in time in terms of simplification.

I think we're definitely seeing some of that confusion with school employees at some sites you have to be at least 50 years old, other sites any age.

But then the governor did decide to expand eligibility across the board to people over the age of 60. What are some of the ways we can simplify this process?

Part of it is beginning to reduce the number of restrictions, not requiring things like doctor's certificates. Try to open it up more broadly.

I think the other thing I would emphasize is that there are sort of two reasons to push the vaccine. One is to protect people who are at high risk, i.e., the elderly, those with preexisting conditions.

But the other reason for pushing the vaccine is to reduce transmission, because that's also going to reduce the risk for the elderly and everybody else if there's less disease circulating.

This gets back to the idea of the importance of immunizing individuals who are sort of key people in terms of the transmission pathway. Teachers, people in stores, people who see the public on a regular basis who, if they themselves get sick, may not get that sick, but have the ability to expose a lot of other individuals.

And so there needs to be less concern of, “Okay, well if you're 60, you can get vaccinated, but if you're 59, you can't.” Somehow we need to begin to think about backing down from some of those strict age categories and getting at occupational groups.

You mentioned earlier that we're “losing time.” What makes this so concerning?

From a scientific standpoint, the more the virus is present within the population, the greater your risk that you're going to have emergence of these variant strains that show varying degrees of either increased transmissibility or in some cases, a degree of immune resistance to the antibodies that are being generated by the vaccines.

And so yet again a reason to really get out there and vaccinate people is to slow the transmission to reduce the risk of various strains, and hopefully be able to get things under better control.

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.