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The South Florida Roundup

Vaccine Eligibility Confusion, One Year Without Cruising, And A Big Immigration Change For Venezuelans

vaccines Miami Dade College.jpg
Verónica Zaragovia
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Members of the U.S. Army work on the vaccines at Miami Dade College North Campus on March 6, 2021.

Where and who can get vaccinated? The cruise industry has been docked for a year, and a major immigration change for Venezuelans.

It was a year ago this week that South Florida started shutting down in the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. One year later, hundreds of thousands of people have been vaccinated, but there still is a lot of confusion over who can get a dose and where.

Federally-sponsored vaccine sites opened in Florida a little more than a week ago and there have been days of long lines and reports of ineligible people getting vaccinated, while those who do meet current requirements outlined by the state have been turned away.

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State eligibility rules are supposed to apply at the FEMA-supplied site at Miami Dade College's North Campus and at two satellite sites. The rules include people 65 years old and older, and police, firefighters and public school workers at least 50 years old. However, the application of those rules has been uneven this week, especially at the temporary FEMA-supplied site in Florida City.

"We had FEMA officials standing shoulder to shoulder with officials from the governor's office giving completely different information to people," said WLRN reporter Danny Rivero, who visited the site on Sunday. "They did administer the vaccine to basically anyone 18 and over on Saturday. On Sunday, they turned hundreds of people away."

The confusion this week included the main FEMA-supplied site as well. WLRN healthcare reporter Verónica Zaragovia was told by a security officer the line of cars waiting was five hours long.

She met three people who arrived at 5 a.m. for the site which doesn't open until 7 a.m. They came after receiving a WhatsApp message from a cousin saying the cousin was vaccinated the day before with no trouble.

"At 3 p.m. they were being turned away because of these rumors," Zaragovia said. "On Thursday, it was totally different. There was no longer a very long wait. They started being really strict about not letting staff vaccinate people who don't meet the qualifications."

"Social media was crucial in spreading the word about what sites were lowering the guard and which ones are not really vaccinating a lot of people," said Miami Herald reporter Bianco Padró Ocasio. "It is very confusing and it's very discouraging also when you have people who show up to the site and they're turned away even though they're eligible."

Statewide, one of every 18 people in Florida who have finished their vaccinations is Black. Meantime, one out of every six people who have died from the virus in Florida is Black. The FEMA-supplied satellite clinics are an effort to address access.

"There's questions about what kind of access is the state or even the federal sites are giving people who live in communities that have lower rates of vaccination, like Florida City, for example — a majority Black city that has been underserved through the entire pandemic," said Padró Ocasio. "The whole idea of building a site where people could just come in was meant to create a greater equality between the people who are unvaccinated and those who have higher rates."

A Year Adrift

One year ago Saturday, U.S. cruise lines voluntarily stopped cruising. A day later the federal government ordered cruise ships to stay docked in the United States. A No Sail Order was issued after cruise ship passengers were early carriers of the virus.

The industry has been shut down for a year as companies work to meet new regulations to set sail again. Most cruise companies have plans to set sail again beginning in June but previous restart timetables have been pushed back as the cruise lines work to be in compliance with Centers for Disease Control protocols.

"There's a lot of hoops to jump through before these ships can get up and running again," said Taylor Dolven, who reports on the cruise industry for the Miami Herald.

The first step has been to set up COVID-19 testing capabilities onboard ships to test crew members and report those results back to the CDC each week. The CDC also will require cruise operators to have agreements in place with ports to avoid a ship being stranded at sea, as some were in the early days of the pandemic, as ports of call refused to allow ships with infected passengers or crew members to dock.

Despite generating no revenue for a year, the companies and their investors are optimistic.

"The cruise companies are reporting that bookings future bookings are strong," Dolven said.

The South Florida-based companies like Carnival, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line have raised billions of dollars of cash through selling stock and issuing bonds, giving them a financial cushion as their ships remain empty.

Venezuelan TPS

This week brought big news for thousands of Venezuelans living in South Florida. On Monday, President Joe Biden granted Temporary Protected Status to Venezuelans currently living in the U.S. TPS is a designation given to people who come to the U.S. from countries that have become destabilized through war or because of events like natural disasters.

“I feel very relieved because I was so scared that I have to go back. I'm here because I was almost kidnapped," Daniella told WLRN, She asked WLRN to withhold her last name because she is not in the U.S. legally. The decision this week will allow her to apply for TPS. If granted she will not face deportation and she could work legally.

"It's clear that going back is not an option" for Venezuelans in South Florida said NPR correspondent Greg Allen. "And it's been clear for quite some time."

Political turmoil and an economic collapse in Venezuela, coupled with extreme violence, has led millions of Venezuelans to flee. Some 300,000 have come to the U.S. and many of them live in South Florida.

In a journalism career covering news from high global finance to neighborhood infrastructure, Tom Hudson is the Vice President of News and Special Correspondent for WLRN. He hosts and produces the Sunshine Economy and anchors the Florida Roundup in addition to leading the organization's news engagement strategy.