Billie Taylor has been trying to get a COVID-19 vaccine since appointments were made available to seniors under an executive order signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis about three weeks ago.
Taylor’s husband, retired advertising executive and artist Michael Tesch, died of COVID-related complications in November, five months after his diagnosis. She desperately wants the vaccine, now that it’s available, but her repeated attempts to log on through Miami-Dade County’s portal and websites for local hospitals offering the vaccine have been fruitless.
“Don’t they see that people are dying?” Taylor, 71, said.
The Miami resident says she wrote emails to hospitals, left messages and even sent a letter to Mayor Daniella Levine Cava.
She said watching the slow rollout and the small amounts of vaccine available in each batch of appointments is agonizing, as she remembers what her husband went through.
“It’s sort of like going through it twice,” she said. “It’s genocide to hold back even a week.”
Taylor is one of hundreds of Miami Herald readers who responded to a request to share their stories of attempts to get vaccines in South Florida. Many said using online portals was nearly impossible and the long waits for vaccines have been hard to endure. And those responses don’t take into account the unknown numbers of seniors who don’t know how to sign up using the internet, or don’t have family and friends who can help them.
Since the vaccines started going into arms late last month, 96,576 people have been vaccinated in Miami-Dade, which has a population of more than 2.7 million, according to data gathered by Johns Hopkins University. That’s about 3.6% of the population. In Broward, which has a population of about 1.9 million, 71,194 people have been vaccinated, or 3.7%.
Health experts say about 70% of the population must be inoculated in order to achieve what they call “herd immunity,” the scientific term for what occurs when a large enough proportion of a population has enough immunity to slow the spread of a virus, because fewer people can get infected. It can be achieved by vaccines or if enough people survive the infection to achieve long-lasting immunity. Or it can be a combination of the two.
The lack of guidance from state and county officials, who have depended on hospitals’ websites as the main way to request appointments on a first-come, first-served basis, continues to concern public health officials and frustrate South Florida seniors.
“It’s been horrible,” said 83-year-old Joan Rogers, who lives in the Brickell neighborhood. “I’ve been on the computer for hours on end. ... It’s very confusing and there’s no way of calling back to find out. I fill it all out and then I’m not really sure. It’s been very frustrating.”
Kay Gelletly, 71, of Key West, said she feels “stuck.”
“There’s no availability and no appointments,” she said. “And I’ll drive anywhere.”
Kendall residents Mel Tenen, 68, and Amy Lomaskin, 72, were able to get appointments after a week of trying and “a lot of persistence and determination and luck.” The couple had to set up a virtual command center to secure the appointments: They set up two iPhones, an iPad and a desktop computer to refresh the Miami-Dade County portal.
“When we got through, there was quite a level of internal excitement,” said Tenen, whose appointment is Sunday at Tropical Park. “Last week was somewhat frustrating. We started feeling resigned to the fact that we were just going to have to wait a while.”
Without the access to computers, Wi-Fi and even the time to spend online vying for an appointment, Tenen recognized that many people who are older or without access to a computer couldn’t get an appointment at all.
“I was saying out loud,” Tenen said, “it shouldn’t have to be this way.”
As Florida’s vaccine rollout gets going, cases of COVID-19 continue to climb, with about 14,000 cases of the virus reported Wednesday as the total tops 1.5 million. But the state’s well-intended effort to get ahead of other states and open the vaccine program to everyone 65 and older has led to unexpected pressure on the hospital systems and county governments, where websites and phone lines are quickly overwhelmed.
On Wednesday, during a meeting as part of the Florida Legislature’s committee weeks, Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees described a supply shortage where the state doesn’t know how much vaccine it is getting from week to week.
“”It’s heartbreaking,” Rivkees said. He promised that “as vaccines get to the state of Florida, we will get it to individuals who are in need.”
Sen. Aaron Bean, a Fernandina Beach Republican, said Rivkees and the state need to give Floridians more information. He said many are very confused and frustrated.
“We need help and we need a clear direction and path,” said Bean, who works for UF Health Jacksonville. “People will be patient if they know there is a plan in place.”
Florida has prioritized a larger group of its population to receive the vaccine than many other states, a point Gov. DeSantis has used when talking about the vaccination program. He bucked guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to vaccinate seniors 75 and older and front-line workers first, and chose instead to make seniors 65 and older the priority, along with healthcare workers and those with underlying conditions.
With limited federal assistance, the states are pretty much on their own handling the expanded rollout.
DeSantis has urged Floridians to be patient.
“This is like the new iPhone times 10,” he said at a press conference in North Florida Tuesday. “It melts phone lines. It melts these reservation systems.”
However, the governor has said the responsibility for the bumpy rollout lies mainly with hospital systems and county governments when it comes to logistics.
“The state is not dictating to hospitals how they run their operations,” he said at a press conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital last Monday. “That would be a total disaster. These guys are much more competent to be able to deliver healthcare services than a state government could ever be. We are empowering the hospitals.”
Those hospitals are overwhelmed.
Jackson Health System in Miami, for instance, doesn’t have a phone line to call because “phone lines for this have crashed at other health systems, and that’s a bad experience for the patient,” a spokeswoman said. Neither does Baptist Health or Broward Health, though the latter says they are working on setting up a call center soon.
Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County does have a number for online scheduling: 954-276-4340. So does Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach, which is 305-674-2312.
Miami-Dade County’s reservation system is online only for now, though the county has been directly calling seniors who live in public housing or receive county services to schedule appointments.
On Monday, the county site had such web traffic issues that Mayor Levine Cava took to Twitter to apologize. On Wednesday, she posted a video to further explain, noting that 80,000 people tried to book just 3,000 spots.
“I know just how urgently so many of you want a vaccine,” Levine Cava said. “The limited supply of vaccines that we have is currently not enough for the enormous demand we see from our community.”
She underscored the need for more vaccines, noting to viewers that she shares their irritation with the arduous appointment process.
“For anyone who has been struggling to get an appointment for yourself or for a family member, I promise you that I will hear you,” she said. “I read every single social media comment myself. I share in your deep frustration.”
At a Broward County commission meeting Tuesday Commissioner Nan Rich said there needs to be a bigger focus on helping seniors, especially those in assisted living facilities, and getting those computer savvy, younger relatives to help or a car to get them to an appointment.
And there are other complicating factors that the lack of a system exacerbates. Darlene MacDowell, a blind Broward resident with kidney and heart problems, said she put in a request for someone from Broward Health to call her for an appointment, but she isn’t sure she would even be able to go if she got one. She relies on Broward County’s paratransit services to run errands, but isn’t sure they would accommodate the long lines and wait times at vaccine distribution sites.
“We’ve been dropped on our heads,” said MacDowell, 84, of Fort Lauderdale. “We’ve fallen through the cracks. … I think DeSantis has done an awesome job, but he’s not perfect. They forgot about us.”
During the Tuesday commission meeting, where commissioners considered a motion to support the vaccinations of essential workers under age 65, Rich said that it’s hard to plan on expanding access.
The state’s Department of Health in Broward gets vaccine shipments on short notice, she said, and seniors in places without public distribution sites in Palm Beach County are also coming to Broward for vaccines.
“When you don’t know what your supply is from one week to the next, it’s really, really hard,” she said.