It took more than five hours of waiting in the sun with her 6-month-old baby and being rejected by five different staffers at Florida City’s federal vaccination site for Yanira Vázquez to finally get her COVID-19 shot.
Vázquez, who is a caregiver for a patient with Down Syndrome, said she was turned away because the note she had from her patient’s pediatrician confirming her eligibility for a vaccine was on her phone and it was not printed. According to a Miami Herald reporter who witnessed it, Vázquez was screamed at by at least one volunteer at the site.
The only reason Vázquez was able to get her vaccine on Sunday at the site, a day after staff vaccinated hundreds of ineligible Florida residents 18 years or older — including some Miami Herald reporters who heard about it on social media — was that she stuck around long enough to speak to a different nurse who was compassionate and accepted her proof of employment.
“I’m not trying to cut in line,” said Vázquez, 41, who added the state’s rules were being applied unevenly. “They just let in another woman [like me] and they said she was fine.”
While hundreds of ineligible residents are now showing up to vaccination sites in hopes of scoring a leftover dose of a vaccine, Vázquez is one of many Floridians who are eligible to get the vaccine but are being turned away at vaccine sites that are imposing arbitrary thresholds for eligibility — even as facilities are not always meeting the daily allotment of available doses.
At the federally run facilities in Florida City and Miami Dade College’s North Campus, those who waited in line said the measures became even stricter on Sunday, after news spread of the free-for-all approach at the Florida City site on Saturday. While it was enough to get a vaccine with proof of prescription at the MDC’s North Campus on Sunday, for example, the Florida City site turned people who had a doctor’s note away because they did not have the state’s official form filled out.
“This is real-life Monopoly. It’s crazy, it’s like the lottery out here,” said Julio Ligorria, who works in public relations and has an underlying condition that makes him eligible for the vaccine.
Ligorria says he’s been unable to get a doctor’s note because he does not have a Primary Care Provider. Urgent care facilities won’t write a note for him and most doctor’s offices say they need to charge him for laboratory tests before they can give him the reference. So he decided to try his luck at the Florida City site on Sunday.
“We were going to wait it out, but I started seeing ... there was going to be no leeway,” said Ligorria, who didn’t get his shot. “It sounded like whoever was calling the shots there was going to make an example of that site and they were not going to budge.”
Keith Labell, 39, wanted to get his 61-year-old mother vaccinated last week at MDC’s North campus, a federal site. She is diabetic and brought a doctor’s note with her. But she was wrongly told at the site that Gov. Ron DeSantis had rescinded his order and they were only accepting residents 65 years or older.
“It was really weird, I didn’t hear anything about DeSantis rescinding his order,” Labell said. He added that his mom is trying again on Monday morning.
What are the protocols to make sure doses are not spoiled?
Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for the Federal Emergency Management Administration, said all federal sites are following Gov. DeSantis’ directive and said there is no significant quantity of vaccines spoiling at federal facilities. He added that Saturday’s confusion began with some individuals who said they were healthcare workers but did not have identification to prove it. Then, word spread like wildfire, he said.
“The staff trusted people, instead of saying, ‘No you can’t’ and turning them away,” said Bahamonde. “The people were not as truthful as they should be.”
Bahamonde added that it is true that the site had unused doses of the vaccine, but “we’ve gone back to the staff and said you really have to uphold the order,” which he admitted could lead to a higher bar for documents that prove eligibility at federal vaccine sites.
“I think that’s what happens in a situation like this where we have to be very certain so that there isn’t this opportunity for others to come in without the proper documentation and getting the vaccine,” he said.
He added that there’s a protocol for leftover doses of the vaccine, although it’s unclear if it’s being followed on the ground. Once all eligible people have been vaccinated at a given site, staff are supposed to go down the list of pre-registered patients, including law enforcement officials or a healthcare worker.
Bahamonde says that once that happens, sites only have “one or two doses” left unused. What happened at the Florida City vaccine site should not have happened, he added.
But those protocols have not stopped counter-instructions and false information from running rampant at vaccination sites.
‘Absolutely incorrect’: Rumors running wild
On Sunday, a man who claimed to be a state employee told people waiting at the Florida City site that there weren’t going to be any more extra vaccines being offered because unused doses were going to be returned to Tallahassee.
Kevin Guthrie, deputy director at the Florida Department of Emergency Management, said that statement was false and the state government was not recalling vaccines.
“That is just ... this is absolutely incorrect,” said Guthrie, who added the Florida City site is federal and not a state site. “There are individuals we have to remove from the site because they’re not getting information correct.”
Guthrie explained that at the end of each shift, employees at state sites only open one vial at a time to make sure vaccines are not wasted. “We will always open a new vial if we have people in line who are eligible,” he said.
And at the end of each day, all unused vaccines are returned to a secure location nearby where they are stored accordingly.
“We’re not going to crack open 100 vials ... that would be wasteful of everybody’s taxpayer dollars,” he said.
On Saturday, as chaos ensued at Florida City’s vaccine site, 494 people were vaccinated at the site, just slightly under the 500 daily allocation at the site, according to Mike Jachles, public information officer for FEMA. On Sunday, when hundreds were being turned away, FEMA reported only 321 doses had been given at the same site, well below the daily capacity.
Meanwhile, some officials argue that the chaos that was created by Florida City is a sign that DeSantis is not acting fast enough to make younger age groups eligible or having a proper system to vaccinate ineligible people if there are leftover vaccines.
“It’s very chaotic because there’s no plan,” said Florida Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat. “You do hear of places who don’t use their allotment, and you’re like, why is this happening? Why don’t we have two lines?”
Miami-Dade County Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said in a tweet that she was urging DeSantis to expand vaccination requirements.
“Our top priority must be to get shots in arms as fast as possible and ensure no available vaccine supply goes unused,” she said. “I urge the Governor to expand eligibility requirements to meet the great demand in our community and across the state.”
Alfred Spellman, producer of ‘Cocaine Cowboys’, reported on Twitter that he walked up to another one of the Miami-Dade sites in Overtown Sunday morning and was waved in without any wait and left with a shot of Moderna in his arm.
The vaccination site at 1551 NW First Ave. is open from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily for those eligible for COVID vaccines under state regulations, including Florida residents 65 and older and healthcare workers. Seniors must bring ID to verify their age, and healthcare workers must bring their professional license.
As of last Wednesday, school employees, police officers and fire rescue workers who are 50 and older were also able to receive vaccines at the site.
(Although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that reporters be included in Phase 1C of vaccine distribution, the state of Florida has not included them.)
The last vaccine
On Sunday, the last vaccine went to a woman named Anita, thanks to a good Samaritan in the line who lives in Homestead and was told he could not get the shot even though he said he has diabetes.
Mohammad Alam, 55, seeing Anita sitting on a chair, pleaded with a worker at the site to have a heart and let Anita receive a shot. Eventually, the worker relented. He intervened, he said, because he didn’t feel it was right.
As for his own rejection, Alam said ”I feel so bad; it’s not the right thing to do.”
Miami Herald staff writer Jacqueline Charles and photojournalist Daniel Varela contributed to this report.