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An Update On Florida's COVID-19 Vaccine Rollout Progress

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

In Florida, in late December, Governor Ron DeSantis broke with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. At that point in the pandemic, the CDC wanted to target people 75 and older and frontline essential workers for vaccination. DeSantis stressed the CDC guidelines were advisory.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RON DESANTIS: They do not bind states, and they do not bind individual governors. And they will not bind the state of Florida. So let me just be very, very clear. Our vaccines are going to be targeted for our elderly population.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So he said 65 or older could get shots, and that set off a stampede of sorts. Jeff Johnson is the AARP's state director for Florida, and he joins us now.

Hey there.

JEFF JOHNSON: Hey, great to talk to you, Lulu.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Just for reference, right now in West Virginia, they have gotten at least one shot into 11% of their population, according to The New York Times. Florida is at about 8.4% - so middle of the road. What does that look like on the ground there? What's the process in Florida for getting in a vaccination line?

JOHNSON: I think one of the challenges that we face right now is that there isn't a process, per se. There are a lot of different channels, a lot of different lines to stand in. Fortunately - and I know people across the country saw images of people camping out overnight to get into a vaccination clinic early in the process. And fortunately, that really isn't the case anymore. Most of the processes are online sign-ups. But still, it's awfully confusing because there are so many different options to go in. None of them are particularly successful either, just because there's not yet enough vaccinations being offered for people to get the appointments that they want.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So tell me what that looks like. I mean, if I am someone who wants to get a vaccine and I fit into the criteria for the state of Florida, I mean, where do I have to look?

JOHNSON: So if you're 65 and over, you can go to your local county health department. You can go to a local pharmacy. Publix pharmacies currently offer it. You could go through a local hospital. Most of them offer appointment windows. So for instance, what has been happening is people find out, perhaps by email, perhaps, frankly, by social media, that one of those channels is going to open for appointments at, let's say, 6 am on a Tuesday. And they'll find out on Monday. They'll have to log in to their computer at 6 a.m., and then they'll have to compete as if you were trying to get, you know, concert tickets or "Hamilton" tickets or something like that, except instead of for something fun, this is for a lifesaving vaccine that they see as a ticket to be able to resume their normal life.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And talk to me a little bit about how challenging this must be. You may not be on Twitter - let's face it - if you are 75 or older. You know, you may have problem with Internet connection, specifically if you're in part of the more vulnerable populations.

JOHNSON: Yeah, one of the things that we at AARP have been trying to say is to take a bit of empathy and to think through what this looks like for somebody who is a person you want to get vaccinated, which is a pretty variable lot. When you think about people 65 and over, there are plenty of 65-year-olds who are far better at technology than I am.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Of course.

JOHNSON: There are - and then there are plenty of 65-year-olds who have a flip phone and no Internet connectivity. And so it is - been maddeningly frustrating for AARP members and others. That's what we continue to hear - is anger and frustration that this is so hard. And I will say every rollout of a major program has a chaos phase at the beginning where it's very difficult to figure out what's going on.

We are beginning to see some of the channels adapt what they're doing. The state has offered a statewide not only website that you can get registered on, but also a phone system for those who don't have that technology, which is good. And we're also seeing some of the local county health departments begin to shift away from this contest of opening appointment slots to more of a line where we will call you when it's your time to go look for an appointment so that we're not opening the doors for, you know, ten times as many people as there are appointments.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: There have also been a lot of stories about vaccine tourism in Florida - people coming in from other states, other countries, even, to get shots there. Authorities tightened residency restrictions late last month. How did that complicate Florida's rollout, in your view?

JOHNSON: It's a challenging set of issues that may be unusual - maybe not unique, but unusual for Florida because we have so many partial-year residents - snowbirds, as they're commonly called - who spend a fair bit of time here in Florida in the winter months but live somewhere else full time as they're permanent residents. And so those folks are in our community. And certainly, it makes sense, if we're trying to make this community safe, to include them in the vaccination process.

So, yes, the - late last month, the governor set parameters of Florida residents and those with short-term leases - so in other words, snowbirds - to try to close off the stories that we've heard of people coming in from outside to get vaccinated here. And that seems to have adapted the way things have rolled out.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should also say, though, Florida has many undocumented workers, as well as others, on temporary agricultural visas who now can't get vaccinated. That might not make great public health sense either.

JOHNSON: I think you're right. I think at the point at which the initial crush of interest from this group begins to recede - that is, as people who are, you know, refreshing their browser every five seconds begin to actually get appointments and get vaccinated - I think that that is one of the conversations that I would hope the state has - is at what point do those restrictions to kind of narrow the field at this point widen out a little? And that is one of the parts of our population that policy leaders are going to have to go back and reflect on.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That is AARP Florida State Director Jeff Johnson.

Thank you very much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CATRIN FINCH AND SECKOU KEITA'S "CEFFYLAU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.