Residents increasingly upset over lack of shots

Where can I get a shot? The Keys Weekly’s email inbox is testament to the public’s frustration in trying to find out who is giving the COVID-19 vaccine in the Keys and how to sign up. Local media, including this newspaper, is pushing out the information as fast as it receives it, but it’s often incomplete.

For example, the announcement Tuesday that Publix grocery stores (see page 4) would begin vaccinating at the Key West and Islamorada stores was just that. The web address for signups wasn’t provided until 4 p.m. that day by the county’s health department.  

Keys residents who have received the vaccine liken it to a difficult treasure hunt. Myra Horn of Key Largo spent three weeks, mostly on the computer, trying to secure a slot before obtaining appointments for herself and her husband from Jackson Health System on the mainland in mid-January. It was her daily mission to boot up the computer and pull the telephone closer 

“We looked at the health department web site and called, we called Mariners Hospital. We just kept going to every website — Palm Beach County, Jackson Hospital, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic. I even called our representatives and the governor’s office,” Horn said. “I would learn when the online registries would open and log on but all the appointments would be taken.”

Horn and her husband finally obtained one of the vaccines at an out clinic of the Jackson Health System. The couple is set to obtain a second dose in early February. The state Department of Health revealed on Jan. 16 that more than 40,000 residents are overdue for the second dose of the two-part vaccine.

While some Keys residents are obtaining shots on the mainland, Monroe County has reportedly received and administered 1,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine. The top official of the Monroe County Health Department has said the doses “just showed up” and said he has no idea when the county will receive more.

“When might Florida receive more? If citizens could be reassured that there will be a steady flow of vaccine that will cover everyone who wants it, I know I would not be frustrated,” said Janet Sheath in an email to the Keys Weekly. “What is frustrating is the drip, drip, of bits of information that leaves many questions unanswered causing anxiety and resulting in frantic calls swamping the health department. The health department is shooting itself in the foot giving as little information as possible.”

Cookie Birmann of Summerland Key also wrote the Keys Weekly explaining that she and her husband are elderly and need the shot. They, too, are frustrated.

“I realize the Keys are ‘far away’ but we are not a different country,” Birmann wrote. “We’ve been trying daily to make a connection for an appointment to get our shots and are told there isn’t even a system set up yet for same. That’s pretty inconsiderate and indifferent about the elderly in the Keys. What’s going on?”

Attempts to book a reservation online through Publix for a vaccination were unsuccessful for Key Largo resident Barbara Cimmarusti. She woke up at 5:30 a.m. to get in the queue for the vaccine. She waited in the queue for an hour and was later notified it was fully booked for Monroe County. 

“The good news is I did get an appointment at the Marlins Stadium in Miami on Friday,” she said. “I was hoping to not have to drive to Miami, but I definitely will.”

Cindy Lewis, of Islamorada, also tried to book a reservation through Publix to obtain a vaccine. And she, too, was unsuccessful after getting online around 5:45 a.m. 

“It’s one queue for the whole state. Not the county,” she said. “You select your county only after they ‘let you in’ to get an appointment.”  

Through Jan. 18, the state of Florida is reporting that just over 1 million residents have been vaccinated on its dashboard. Of those, 100,000 have received both doses. The same site reports that 4,207 Keys residents have received a vaccination, with 260 who have received both doses. The disparity between the 1,300 doses confirmed in the Keys versus the 4,200 is due to the vaccines given at the institutional level — for example, employees of medical facilities.  

That included Ocean Reef. According to Monroe County, the Baptist Health South Florida facility in Ocean Reef received 1,200 doses. According to one resident who did not receive a shot, the vaccine was available to the elderly of that community.

The public’s frustration is matched by those in the medical community, whose main complaint is that they do not know, from week to week, how many doses are coming from the federal government.

“State health officials say the unpredictable shipments have led to chaos on the ground, including the inability to quickly use up all of the doses sent to them,” said a paper authored by Caroline Chen, Isaac Arnsdorf, and Ryan Gabrielson and published by Medscape. “The week-by-week system also makes it hard to plan for the second doses that everyone needs because they come three or four weeks after the initial dose.”

The paper also said Pfizer and Moderna, makers of the two approved vaccines, were each contracted to supply 100 million doses by the end of March. However, only 31.2 million doses were delivered as of Jan. 15. The paper stated, “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the companies will need to ramp up their pace to hit their targets.”

Baptist Health South Florida said vaccine constraints led them to suspend all first-dose vaccinations for appointments booked for Jan. 20 and later. No new appointments are being taken. Hospital officials say they are still able to fulfill all second-dose appointments. 

“We have not received an allocation of first dose vaccines for this week and beyond, and the timing of any subsequent deliveries remains unclear,” Georgi Pipkin, communications director for Baptist Health, said in a statement. “We understand that this news is disconcerting and we share in our community’s disappointment and concern. We have worked tirelessly to build an infrastructure that would allow us to vaccinate our community, but are limited by vaccine supply received.” 

Pipkin went on to say that Baptist Health hopes that the much-needed vaccine doses will be provided in the coming days, allowing the rescheduling of canceled appointments as soon as possible based on vaccine availability. Baptist Health has vaccinated more than 25,000 people since the rollout in mid-December.

Sara Matthis thinks community journalism is important, but not serious; likes weird and wonderful children (she has two); and occasionally tortures herself with sprint-distance triathlons, but only if she has a good chance of beating her sister.