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As DeSantis Lowers Florida Vaccine Age Cap, Health Care Advocates Urge Him To Include Frontline Workers

People lined up to get a COVID-19 vaccine at Miami Dade College North Campus on March 6, 2021
Verónica Zaragovia
People lined up to get a COVID-19 vaccine at Miami Dade College North Campus on March 6, 2021

Gov. Ron DeSantis stood behind a sign that's consistently attached to the front of a podium he speaks from, as he travels across the state and gives press conferences about vaccinations in the state. At a press conference in Palm Harbor, in Pinellas County on Florida’s west coast, the familiar “SENIORS FIRST” sign appeared on Wednesday, March 17.

DeSantis said there that he disagreed with the ages that the federal government had chosen for vaccinations, like for teachers, at sites supported by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

"Those FEMA sites, they do it regardless of age," DeSantis said then about the policy to allow any pre-K through 12th grade staff member, age 18 and older, to get vaccinated at these sites. At the state sites — Hard Rock Stadium and Marlins Park, for instance — however, school employees must be age 50 and older.

"Now, we're not doing that because we're following the data, and the data tells us if you're a 22-year-old school employee, you're at less risk than somebody that's 70 or 65," he said.

By Thursday, at a press conference in Panama City, DeSantis said he might announce another age drop Friday. Then Friday morning, at another press conference in Tallahassee, he said that effective Monday, March 22, the minimum age for vaccinations in Florida will drop to 50.

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DeSantis previously said he wouldn't drop the age until enough seniors get vaccinated. He pointed to the rate in Palm Beach County — about 72% of its seniors have been inoculated. He says counties that are behind need to do more to recruit them to sites. Meanwhile, states like Texas have dropped the age cap to 50 and Arizona, Mississippi and Alaska have been vaccinating people 16 and older.

Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious diseases expert at Florida International University, is worried about not vaccinating enough people who work around lots of people — including teachers.

“Those who interact with tourists who might interact with individuals bringing new variants into our state, so that means we have to get front line workers that are at grocery stores, front line workers that are in hotels, front line workers that are in restaurants,” Marty said. “Those people need to be vaccinated right away. In addition to obviously the teachers of all ages need to be vaccinated.”

Dr. Marty pointed to the substantial cases of the COVID-19 variant first seen in the U.K.

“In Miami-Dade, for example, right now, 60 percent of our random sampling or the random sampling that's being done by [Dr. Lillian Abbo, chief of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Jackson Health System] shows are of the U.K. variant, and that's really significant,” Marty said, adding that hospitals in South Florida are seeing an uptick in hospitalizations, “which is barely noticeable because we are discharging at a faster rate. So this is going in the wrong direction a little bit here, and we need to go back in the right direction."

And one of the most important things we can do to get back in the right direction is to get frontline people vaccinated and anyone with underlying conditions, regardless of age. That's really important. And we do need a unified message throughout the state,” she said.

Blanca Mesa, the outreach director at the Florida Health Justice Project, points to the decrease in the number of people going to the mass vaccination sites, like the FEMA site at Miami Dade College's North Campus. It can vaccinate 3,000 people daily. These are some recent totals of Pfizer-BioNTech and Johnson & Johnson shots given at Miami Dade College North Campus:

  • March 18 -- 2,160 vaccines
  • March 17 -- 2,393 vaccines
  • March 16 -- 3,870 vaccines
  • March 15 -- 2,984 vaccines
  • March 14 -- 1,820 vaccines
  • March 12 -- 2,639 vaccines
  • March 11 -- 2,384 vaccines
  • March 10 -- 2,553 vaccines

“There’s obviously a demand because when those FEMA sites opened it up, and just allowed anyone who had come seeking vaccines, we saw the line start the night before. We saw hundreds and hundreds of people waiting to get the vaccines,” Mesa said. “Miami-Dade County is in a very precarious situation because we have very high numbers of COVID, we have international tourism — which now we have spring break on top of that — so we are a community that is highly vulnerable and then we have an agriculture community in the south with migrant workers who are working in very close contact. They’re in packing houses, it’s the harvest season now.”

Mesa says another barrier is the medical form from the state Department of Health, titled the "COVID-19 Determination of Extreme Vulnerability." At FEMA sites, you can bring it printed out, display it on a phone, or show a doctor’s note if you have a medical condition that makes you extremely vulnerable to COVID-19.

“When you’re uninsured or poor, you can’t just see a doctor,” Mesa added. “Maybe you depend on community health clinics who already have a backload waiting to be able to get an appointment, so it’s not that easy, and even then you have to pay copays. You know you have asthma, you take an inhaler. You have your diabetes medication. You should be able to just go to the center and say I’m vulnerable, I’m at risk and sign a piece of paper.”

Jackson Health System has taken out the requirement of a form and is allowing self-attestation as young as 16 with a parent. People age 18 and older who have a medical condition can try to get an appointment through JHS without bringing a signed form from a doctor as proof.

Mesa suggests business and tourism representatives should join health care advocates in a push to get more workers vaccinated.

“The chambers of commerce, the restaurant association should actually be urging the governor to do that as well, to protect their own workers and to make their customers feel better. We want our economy to get back and be strong. It’s not gonna happen if the virus is here and it’s not gonna happen if our employees are unhealthy," she said.

Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org
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