UPDATE 5 January 2021: Here’s an update to this story.
Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties are not accepting new appointments for the coronavirus vaccine after demand for it filled up appointments for those counties’ existing stocks of vaccine. They might get more next week.
Florida county health departments have started rolling out COVID-19 vaccines to people 65 and older across the state. But many are running out of appointments before shots have even gone in arms and some websites are crashing before people can make appointments.
Speaking at a news conference in Seminole County Monday, Gov. Ron DeSantis acknowledged 2020 was not the best year.
“No matter whether you ever had any encounter with COVID it was still tough for people,” he said. “And I think 2021 is gonna be brighter and I think this vaccine is providing a lot of hope to a lot of people.”
But as vaccine rolls out to Floridians 65 and older, the New Year is starting with problems many in Florida hope stayed in 2020 — critical state websites crashing due to overwhelming demand.
Hillsborough and Pinellas Counties launched websites for seniors to schedule vaccination appointments Monday. But minutes after launching, those sites went down. Phone hotlines to make appointments were also bogged down with tech issues or long wait times.
Kevin Watler, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough said those delays shouldn’t impact the County’s vaccine distribution.
“I have no doubt in my mind that we’re gonna fill every one of those slots,” he said.
Supplying the demand
Vaccines available to county health departments have been all over the place. Hillsborough’s Health Department is expected to distribute 9,000 doses of the vaccine over four days this week. Manatee reported it’d distribute 1,400 doses over two days at a drive-thru site in Bradenton. Polk County announced its appointments for the week were filled by Monday and in Hernando, the week’s appointments have been filled since New Year’s Eve.
Once counties fill those appointments, it’s anyone’s guess as to when new slots will be available. Florida counties are supposed to receive doses weekly, but the numbers and dates are not set in stone, forcing counties to continue a piecemeal approach to scheduling vaccinations.
The Trump administration said 17 million doses have been shipped nationwide. But Manatee Public Safety Director Jake Saur said supply is not meeting the demand.
“It’s gonna be an on-and-off process until that supply chain is really full. I know that the demand – especially 65 and over—to get vaccinated is very high,” he said. “We understand and we’re working as fast as we can. But the supply is just not there yet.”
Dialing back distribution
With limited supply, DeSantis has indicated to hospital systems and counties that vaccines will be reserved for those who can effectively handle distribution. If systems can’t get vaccine out, DeSantis said their allocations would be dialed back.
“Hospitals that do not do a good job of getting the vaccine out will have their allocations transferred to hospitals that are doing a good job at getting the vaccine out,” DeSantis said.
Saur said Manatee has had relative success with its scheduling system. Manatee uses the 311 line for phone appointments and the website Eventbrite for online booking. With DeSantis’s plan to direct vaccine to the most successful, Saur said Manatee could have a chance at securing even more doses in the coming weeks.
“We continue to prove that we can get those out quickly,” Saur said. “So I’m confident the State sees that as well. We can get more doses quicker than other counties that are just getting off the ground.”
In Hillsborough, Watler said he doesn’t think Monday’s registration hiccups would impact the County’s allocation.
“We’re gonna be working with all the priority groups and getting them vaccinated as fast as we can,” he said.