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Expanding Vaccine Eligibility, COVID-19 In Latin America, And Pandemic Spring Break

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DOUGLAS HANKS DHANKS@MIAMIHERALD.COM
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The Miami Herald
Mario Ortiz, 66, waves his vaccination card after emerging from the federal vaccination site operating at Miami Dade College North on Thursday, March 4, 2021. The site opened this week and began vaccinating people 65 and older, and teachers and school workers of any age.

More people are eligible to get a COVID-19 vaccine this week, including people as young as 18 years old with certain conditions. Plus, the pandemic continues raging in Latin America. And a pandemic spring break on the sand in Fort Lauderdale.

This was the week that a lot more younger people could begin getting vaccinated against COVID-19 in Florida. Teachers, school workers, people working in daycare centers can now get their dose or doses at some vaccination sites, including pharmacies.

Even people as young as 18 years old are eligible for the vaccine at Broward Health and Broward Memorial Healthcare System if they have certain underlying medical conditions.

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"The bottom line is we want to vaccinate all those who meet the criteria and get to herd immunity as soon as possible," said Dr. Aldo Calvo, medical director of ambulatory services at Broward Health.

The two Broward public health systems have expanded who is eligible for a vaccine beyond Gov. Ron DeSantis' most recent executive order which lowered the age to 50 for certain professions — K-12 school teachers and staff, law enforcement officers and firefighters. The governor's criteria also allows for people as young as 50 with qualifying medical conditions and a doctor's note to be vaccinated. Those remain the rules for Jackson Health in Miami-Dade County.

"First, we want to make sure that we're getting to our most vulnerable population first and our first-line employees who are of high risk of contracting the virus," said Sarah Francis, Jackson Memorial Hospital's assistant director of pharmacy services.

Calvo said that despite Broward North's eligibility criteria exceeding that of the state's rules, they have not received any criticism.

"We know from the data that a lot of the people who've been ravaged by COVID-19 with hospitalizations, ICU admissions, intubations and, unfortunately, death, not only are they 65 years of age or older, but they're also individuals who have these chronic conditions, many of whom are poor come from minority communities who are Hispanics and Blacks," he said.

As of Friday afternoon, March 5, the online portals at Broward Health and Jackson Health were not accepting new appointments, and there was no firm date or time when it would reopen their appointment webpages.

"The good news is that we will be opening it up again next week. It will be several times that we will do this from time to time," Calvo said.

"We do realize that certain individuals may have barriers to using technology," Francis said. "We have a community outreach partnership with over 100 houses of worship and nonprofit organizations and have partnered with those houses of worship to be able to coordinate their eligible members to get vaccination at Jackson."

A Region Reels From COVID-19

The daily positivity rate of COVID-19 in South Florida has fallen considerably since the beginning of the year, but it is rising in Brazil. The country has reported the third most cases in the world, behind the U.S. and India according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

Worldwide, five of the top 15 countries with the highest death toll from the virus are in Latin America.

"Despite all the political and health interventions, [Latin America] is one of the regions most affected by COVID-19. [It] came to demonstrate our inequities in social economic development and very poor health infrastructure," said Dr. Carlos Espinal, director of Florida International University's Global Health Consortium.

This week, Brazil experienced some of the deadliest days yet of the pandemic. Hospital ICU’s are more than 80% full across much of Brazil. And it has set new record high daily infections.

"Brazil has been under a very complicated situation with no political leadership. Even the president doesn't take seriously the pandemic," Espinal said. "As a consequence, there is no clear mandate of social distancing, using masks and keeping basic safety measures. And in addition to that, we have the Brazilian [virus] variant, which is extremely, transmissible and highly pathogenic."

The worsening crisis has put more pressure on countries and the international community to find and distribute vaccines in the hemisphere.

"It's so bad there that COVAX, which is the international effort to get more vaccine access to poor countries, told me a few weeks ago that Latin America is now its top priority in terms of getting vaccines in into any region in the world," said WLRN Americas Editor Tim Padgett.

Espinal agreed that vaccines are the first priority, followed up investment in the continent's own pharmaceutical industry to manufacture vaccines.

"We learned nothing from the previous pandemic during the flu pandemic. This is the price we pay for the low investment in science and then research and development in vaccines," he said.

A Pandemic Spring Break

The virus has not slowed down spring break season in South Florida. For the last week in February, hotel occupancy in Miami Beach was down just 15% compared to a year earlier, when the pandemic was just beginning. Fort Lauderdale also is seeing plenty of spring breakers. Demand for hotels in Fort Lauderdale was down only 13% compared to a year earlier.

"We're prepared for a regular spring break," said Fort Lauderdale Interim Assistant Police Chief Frank Sousa. "We have seen a pretty sizable spring break crowd thus far."

The crowds may come, but the rules aiming to slow the spread of COVID-19 remain in effect — mask wearing and social distancing. However, unlike Miami-Dade County, there is no curfew in Broward County.

Commissioners decided against one after talking with the hospitality industry and Fort Lauderdale police.

"If the county issues [a business] shutdown order, the city of Fort Lauderdale police will enforce it," said Broward County Mayor Steve Geller.

The spring break season runs from late February through mid-April. Sousa described the crowds as "larger than anticipated because we really didn't know what to anticipate." He said there will be a sizable increase in police presence on the the beach on weekends.

"It will be very evident that there are police everywhere."

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.