COVID-19 vaccinations for ages 65 and older to resume in Pinellas

Dr. Angus Jameson, Medical Director at Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services and an emergency room doctor, has been training volunteer paramedics who will be administering the shots at two new locations, which have not yet been disclosed. Jameson updated county commissioners about the latest information about COVID-19 during a Jan. 12 meeting.

It took about an hour Friday morning for all the appointments for next week’s COVID-19 vaccinations to be booked.

There are no vaccines available for residents without an appointment and there is no waiting list. However, residents can sign up for an account on the patient portal at www.patientportalfl.com to receive an alert about when the next shipment of vaccine arrives from the state.

The process takes about 10-20 minutes and requires the user to answer some questions about medical history and complete a consent form. Creating an account does not guarantee an appointment.

Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County sent out an email about 9:50 a.m. alerting the public that registration for 10,000 doses of vaccine would begin at 10 a.m. Friday. About 10,000 doses were available and would be administered by paramedics to those with an appointment, which are expected to start early next week.

Those able to schedule an appointment were required to be made one for the second dose at the time of scheduling for their first dose.

Officials expected appointments to fill up quickly, which they did. They were scheduled using the new CDR HealthPro portal, www.patientportal.com. Those without internet or in need of assistance could call 844-770-8548. The call center is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week and can provide help in English and Spanish. Residents were urged to use the internet if possible due to likelihood of exceptionally long wait times.

“This first come, first served approach is still the fastest way to get shots in arms, which is the primary goal at this time,” said Dr. Ulyee Choe, director of Florida Department of Health in Pinellas.

DOH Pinellas is a state agency and not a part of Pinellas County government.

Fire paramedic crews will operate four new public vaccination sites for seniors over the age of 65 starting Jan. 19. The locations are not being made public to avoid having people without an appointment trying to get vaccinated.

“We are well aware of the urgent need for more vaccine in our county and will continue to request the state to provide more to our hospitals, pharmacies and to the Health Department over the next weeks and months,” said Barry Burton, county administrator.

Announcement of new registration system

If all went according to plan, persons over age 65 would once again be able to sign up for a COVID-19 vaccination by the week of Jan. 18.

Burton shared the news with county commissioners during a Jan. 12 meeting. He said the Florida Department of Health has partnered with the county to contract a new company to provide an online and phone registration system, which is also being used in Pasco, Hillsborough, Orange and other counties in the state.

According to Dr. Choe, the county received about 13,000 doses of Pfizer vaccine of which about 11,200 will be available for those who need a first dose, starting next week (Jan. 19). The remainder would go to those who need a second dose.

The county was working with the new vendor to test the registration system to ensure it was working before announcing dates or the location of distribution centers.

The state of Florida provided 3,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine for seniors age 65 and older in Pinellas County last week. And all agree that distribution did not go well.

DOH in Pinellas County announced Dec. 30 that a reservation system was expected to go live on Jan. 4 with the launch of a vaccination plan on Jan. 5. More information about how to reserve a time at a designated vaccination location was expected as details became available.

Just before noon on Jan. 4, DOH released instructions on how to register online or by phone. Complaints came in almost immediately. DOH’s website crashed and the phone lines were inoperable. The few who managed to get through reported that no appointments were available.

Just before 7 p.m., DOH announced that online and phone registration had been suspended.

Officials reminded the public that “we are in the early phases off the vaccination program and there will be more opportunities for vaccinations in the coming weeks and months. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”

The next morning, Jan. 5, DOH tried again using a phone-only registration system; however, the public complained about hours-long wait times and said they couldn’t get through. Some people showed up at the vaccination locations and waited in long lines. A few managed to get a vaccination and some got an appointment to get a vaccination at a later date. Most were turned away. It didn’t take long to exhaust the supply of only 3,000 doses.

Burton said this time, the registration system would be tested before information is provided to the public.

County commissioners received an update on COVID-19 vaccinations during a Jan. 7 work session. County Administrator Barry Burton said the registration system had been insufficient resulting in “mass confusion.”

Choe pointed out it was just the start of the process. The supply from the state had been limited to only 3,000 for a county with more than 250,000 aged 65 and older, which is the target age for Phase 1 of the vaccine.

Early supplies of vaccine also have been distributed to health care workers and nursing home residents. Vaccinations at long-term care facilities are the responsibility of the state, he said.

The vaccination process as a whole is a collaborative effort between hospitals, pharmacies and first responders with everyone working to distribute the required first and second dose of the vaccine.

But, it’s going to take time, Choe said.

As of Jan. 7 no word about when Pinellas might get another batch of vaccine was available. So, the focus had shifted to trying to find better ways to distribute the vaccine and improved methods of communication. Commissioners also discussed the best role county government could play to help.

Burton said the county was working with the state to possibly stand up four more vaccination sites that would be staffed by volunteer paramedics. That would allow more volume to be distributed, but would only work if more vaccine was available.

In the end, commissioners agreed that the best role the county could play was in communication, making sure the public was aware when new supplies were available and the best way to get a vaccination.

“Communication is crucial,” Choe said.

For the most up-to-date information on vaccinations, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/vaccines.

Commissioners also discussed different ways that flu shots are delivered each year and the pros and cons of those methods, but again everything was dependent on the supply chain — how much vaccine the federal government provided to the state and how much the state allocated to each county.

Commissioner Rene Flowers asked about the possibility of using houses of worship to administer the vaccine. She said they were places trusted by minorities, including people of color over age 65.

Meanwhile, Dr. Angus Jameson, Medical Director at Pinellas County Emergency Medical Services and an emergency room doctor, has been training volunteer paramedics who will be administering the shots at four new locations, which have not yet been disclosed.

The paramedics are working on a volunteer basis, while continuing their regular job, but they will be paid over-time pay by the county.

“People are going to have to be patient,” Burton said. “This is going to take weeks not days.”

Bayfront Health St. Petersburg announced Jan. 13 that it was expanding its COVID-19 vaccination program to patients who are 65 or older. However, due to the limited supply of vaccine, scheduling information will be communicated directly to those eligible through a phased election process, according to a press release. Appointments will be first come, first served.

Bayfront Health St. Petersburg also added an additional vaccination site where eligible individuals can make an appointment for their first vaccine dose. Two sites are now available by appointment: Bayfront Health St. Petersburg, 701 Sixth St. S., and Bayfront Health St. Petersburg emergency room, 3070 Grand Ave., Pinellas Park.

For more information, visit https://www.bayfrontstpete.com/covid19vaccine.

Bay Pines VA Healthcare System also announced that it is offering COVID-19 vaccination to veterans older than age 75, veterans who are homeless, hemodialysis patients and solid organ transplant patients or patients who are listed for transplant and chemotherapy patients of any age.

However, this is an initial rollout and many veterans will not be able to get a vaccine due to supply limitations. Do not visit a VA facility looking to receive a vaccine or to schedule an appointment. Veterans will be contacted by a care team when a vaccine is available. Decisions will be made based on personal risk and vaccine availability. For more information, visit va.gov/health-care/covid-19-vaccine/stay-informed.

Prevention is still the best medicine

Since it could be months before many Pinellas County residents have an opportunity to get vaccinated, Choe says it is very important to continue to wear masks, practice social distancing, wash hands and do everything you can to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

He said the next few weeks would be critical as the virus continues to spread.

The number of cases has been steadily increasing with the seven-day rolling average up to 586, which is near the summer peak, Choe told commissioners Jan. 12. The average positivity rate is down from the 11% reported last week to 10.4%. Deaths were up to 1,129 with 64% from long-term care facilities.

Choe said hospitals were becoming concerned about staffing for intensive care units. He said if specialized care nurses are not available, ICU beds are not available.

Jameson agreed that staff if the biggest challenge for local hospitals. He said they could have beds but no staff.

Jameson also said there had been a shift to younger COVID-19 patients recently. He said ages were “across the board” unlike this summer when it had been mostly the older population. He also pointed out that new variants had been detected that were more contagious, which added to the concern about a strain on hospital capacity.

Choe said models produced by the University of Florida showed that numbers will continue to rise over the next few weeks with a peak sometime in February.

People who can work from home should do so, he said. People should go out only for essential trips to minimize risk.

Jameson said it is important to double the efforts for prevention and to do what is necessary to flatten the curve.

“We’re far from out of the woods,” Burton told commissioners. “It’s critical that we not overwhelm the hospital system.”

He said he knows that people want to return to normalcy, but we still have to continue to work to stop the spread.

Suzette Porter is TBN’s Pinellas County editor. She can be reached at sporter@tbnweekly.com.

Revised to add information about Friday’s registration and latest information on availability of vaccine.