‘There’s just too many people.’ DeSantis pressures hospitals as vaccine demand grows

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Samantha J. Gross, Ana Claudia Chacin
·8 min read
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At a press conference to announce three additional vaccine sites in Miami, Gov. Ron DeSantis on Monday blamed Florida’s hospitals for the bumpy start to vaccinations and the first come, first served system that left thousands of seniors camped outside in waits that made national headlines.

“The state is not dictating to hospitals how they run their operations,” he said at Jackson Memorial Hospital 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.”

The press conference was part of a two-stop press tour to roll out DeSantis’ plan to boost vaccination numbers.

At the same event, Jackson Health System CEO Carlos Migoya announced that the public hospital system will launch a website on Tuesday at 11 a.m. for seniors to make appointments to get vaccinated at one of the hospital system’s three sites: the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center in Miami, the North Dade Health Center in Miami Gardens and the Jackson South Medical Center in Kendall. All three will be open seven days a week. Those interested should visit jacksonhealth.org for more information Tuesday.

The goal is to vaccinate 2,000 seniors per day at first, but to ramp up those numbers throughout the month of January. Seniors in Miami-Dade County public housing will also be prioritized for vaccinations.

As the vaccines were sent to the state, hospitals in Miami-Dade and beyond have become the de facto immunization sites. The county’s COVID-19 web page points prospective patients toward Mount Sinai Medical Center and Jackson Health System for appointments.

But the already overwhelmed hospital systems weren’t ready, and as the first week of the new year kicked off Monday, the vaccine rollout — which began after the Christmas holiday — continued to prove bumpy. Crashing websites, overwhelmed hospital phone lines and confusing data are making it hard to see how many people hospitals are vaccinating. In South Florida, only a few are using their supplies to inoculate the general public, with healthcare workers and seniors first in line.

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Mary Jo Trepka, an infectious disease epidemiologist and professor at Florida International University, said counties and the state need better coordination to deliver the vaccine in the most efficient way.

“In order to vaccinate the several million people that we have in Miami and the rest of South Florida, it can’t just fall on the hospitals,” she said. “There’s just too many people that have to be vaccinated.”

Trepka said that while she understood the early days of the rollout were bound to raise issues, the effort must “get organized as soon as possible because we have a long ways to go in terms of getting the majority of people vaccinated.”

Miami, Florida, January 4, 2021-Carlos Migoya, CEO, Jackson Health System (center) speaks during a press conference outside the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Miami, Florida, January 4, 2021-Carlos Migoya, CEO, Jackson Health System (center) speaks during a press conference outside the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

On New Year’s Eve, the Cleveland Clinic Florida in Weston announced it had used up its vaccine supply and suspended scheduling existing patients. The hospital, which says it experienced a high volume of calls for older patients who meet criteria for vaccination under DeSantis’ order, will resume scheduling patients when more vaccine is available.

Justin Senior, the state’s former Medicaid director and president of the Safety Net Hospital Alliance of Florida, said his member hospitals, which include Broward Health System, Memorial Healthcare System, Jackson Health System and Mount Sinai Medical Center, are in the process of focusing on vaccinating seniors.

Hospitals hope to vaccinate 1,000 to 2,000 people per day at satellite facilities set up to accommodate as many members of the public as possible. He said as more vaccinations happen, Florida will see a shift in the virus spread across the state.

“The ball is going to really start rolling down here in the next few days,” Senior said. “Ultimately, when you pull healthcare workers and the seniors and the long-term care residents to safety, it’s a totally game-changing situation. 2021 is totally different than 2020.”

The state of Florida’s COVID-19 dashboard Monday reported another 11,256 cases, the sixth consecutive reporting day of over 10,000. Current hospitalizations are at around 7,000, and the state’s positive test rate remains over 12%. Most heath experts say the rate should be below 5% to start suppressing community transmission.

DeSantis keeping an eye on supply

Even though hospitals are struggling to keep up, DeSantis said he will be keeping a close eye on how quickly hospitals are handing out coronavirus vaccines. At the Monday press conference, he said any hospital system that fails to meet its vaccination goals will see supplies redistributed to other hospitals.

“I do not want to see a vaccine sitting around not being used when you could be putting a shot in an arm,” he said.

Trepka said of the 800,000 vaccines Florida has distributed, only 246,000 have been administered.

Miami, Florida, January 4, 2021- Peachie Tresbant receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.
Miami, Florida, January 4, 2021- Peachie Tresbant receives the Pfizer-BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine at the Christine E. Lynn Rehabilitation Center at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

She said some hospitals were reserving the second dose for healthcare workers who had already gotten their initial shots, but she said that means a lot of vaccines that are sitting around.

Senior said the hospitals in his organization are distributing the vaccine, and that the governor has made it very clear that they are not supposed to hold the second dose in reserve.

“The supply will be based on their distribution,” he said. “The more they put into people’s arms, the more second doses they will receive.”

Hospital officials, meanwhile, continued to assert Monday that the state’s plan saddles them with an unprecedented logistical task at a precarious time. Mary Mayhew, who until October was DeSantis’ secretary of Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration, noted that hospitals are being asked by DeSantis to distribute the vaccine at the same time that COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the rise.

“We’ve got a storm to weather right now as the hospitalizations are increasing,” said Mayhew, who is now the president and CEO of the Florida Hospital Association. “While we have optimism about the vaccine, we’re battling on two fronts.”

DeSantis said Monday that under Operation Warp Speed, the public-private partnership to develop and distribute COVID-19 vaccines, hospitals would receive another shipment meant for second doses.

Florida is not the only place where distribution of the vaccine is at issue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo of New York said Monday that hospitals there could face fines of up to $100,000 if they did not use their supplies of vaccine by the end of the week, and that future shipments must be used within seven days of receipt, or hospitals could get kicked out of distribution networks.

DeSantis said 80% of the vaccines the state has acquired have gone to hospitals. The Florida Hospital Association said in a press release Monday that the amount was closer to 55%.

According to the state, the COVID-19 vaccine is only available to seniors through hospitals and county health departments.

But each county health department offers the vaccine differently. Some county health departments will only be offering vaccines at specific locations. Others may send teams into senior living communities. Some will employ a hybrid of the two.

South Florida counties continue to have problems. Broward County’s sign-up website for the COVID-19 vaccine, which has crashed since it went live Wednesday, is no longer taking any new appointments. Miami-Dade County doesn’t have its own portal for appointments, and recommends residents try the hospitals.

Mina Radman, 28, got her 66-year-old father an appointment to get the shot at Tradewinds Park in Coconut Creek after happening to find an open spot while she walked her dog early Sunday morning. She had tried all day Friday to get a spot, to no avail.

“The whole experience of getting him the appointment reminded me of all the times I’d fight to get tickets to a Taylor Swift concert or ‘Hamilton’ on Broadway,” said Radman, whose family lives in Parkland. “I’ve always been good at that type of thing. Never thought I’d be using those skills for a vaccine, but here we are.”

Katie Shehadtch, of Coral Gables, said she and her husband worked tirelessly to get appointments for her 74-year-old parents. Her father snagged a spot at the Vista View Park site in Davie, but after waiting hours for his appointment, the site shut down and he wasn’t given a reason why.

“A bunch of police came and one of them came to their windows and said the site is closing down, they need to reschedule,” Shehadtch, 35, said.

Now Broward County isn’t taking new appointments, so Shehadtch’s father is out of luck. Her mother, who is supposed to get the shot Wednesday, is wary of making the drive.

“They make all these appointments, but how many are actually going to get vaccinated?” she said.

Herald/Times Tallahassee Bureau reporter Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.