Registration for COVID-19 vaccine appointments open 24/7

A volunteer paramedic administers a COVID-19 shot at a recent vaccination event in Largo. Pinellas County is working to get as many shots in arms as possible; however, supplies are limited.

Pinellas County residents have expressed frustration with the way they have been forced to sign up for COVID-19 vaccinations over the past few weeks. But things should be better in the future.

That was one of the messages shared during a Facebook Live event Friday afternoon attended by Pinellas County Commission Chair Dave Eggers, County Administrator Barry Burton and Department of Health Pinellas Director Dr. Ulyee Choe.

Since the state began allocating small amounts of vaccine to DOH Pinellas for distribution to eligible residents, complaints have come in about the sign up process to get an appointment. It was based on a process where DOH announced a time that everyone could try to get on a website or call a phone number in hopes of getting in and booking one of about 10,000 appointments.

The system wasn’t able to handle the volume the first time an announcement went out. The website and the phone lines crashed.

County government then got involved and worked with DOH to contract a national company being used by other large counties. Residents were then asked to use the CDR HealthPro portal, accessible online at www.patientportalfl.com.

Unfortunately, that system also had problems and the next time DOH announced that the site would be open to take appointments, things didn’t go much better.

As a result, residents experienced a lot of frustration and anxiety, Eggers said.

He refused to place blame, instead pointing to a “fast-evolving” vaccination process with different messages coming from state and federal programs. He said “Herculean efforts” had been involved throughout the production, storage and delivery phases.

Now, the county has the job of making sure the vaccine that is being allocated locally gets into as many arms as efficiently as possible. He said the county’s role is changing and will continue to change, admitting that some mistakes have been made during the roll out and sign up process to get appointments resulting in frustration, anger and fear.

“I’m sorry for that,” he said, adding that everyone “stands ready to continue to improve our system.”

Burton said work was continuing to improve the distribution channels; however, supply of the vaccine is not adequate. Still, he said improvements can be made.

He said staff had worked the vendor and the system will be modified so that those registered will be contacted when an appointment is available for scheduling. The public will no longer get a call for action at a certain date and time to try to access a system all at one time. The competition for access is over.

The method that will be used to contact people to schedule an appointment is not yet known. But people are encouraged to register so they are in line the next time vaccine is available. Burton reminded the public that it could still be some time before they can get an appointment with the number of new doses available still as low as it is.

“Not all will get one (an appointment),” he said. “It depends on supply.”

Those currently eligible for vaccination include people age 65 and older, health care workers and people with serious underlying conditions. Hospitals are currently administering vaccine to those with underlying medical conditions who are younger than age 65. Each hospital has its own process, Choe said.

As of Friday, 86,470 had received a shot in Pinellas, including 60,160 first doses and 26,310 who had received both doses. There are an estimated 250,000 residents age 65 and older in the county.

Next week, most of the DOH’s resources will be used administering second doses with any available first doses being used for special missions, including working with partners to get more health care workers vaccinated.

He said in the future, DOH would like to have larger facilities to administer the vaccine. He wants to work more with partners, such as community centers and churches to reach more people.

Despite early expectations that COVID-19 vaccinations would be available much the same as flu shots, that didn’t happen — again mostly due to supply issues. Eggers pointed out just how fast things are changing.

Before this week, people could only get vaccines through DOH, local hospitals and pharmacies. However, Publix has begun offering COVID-19 vaccinations in Pinellas. And Winn-Dixie (Southeastern Grocers) and Walmart are expected to begin offering vaccinations soon, thanks to a new federal Retail Pharmacy Program.

For more information about Publix’s program, visit https://www.publix.com/covid-vaccine/florida.

Winn-Dixie has information available at https://www.winndixie.com/pharmacy/covid-vaccine. Walmart had not yet released any information as of Feb. 6.

Residents are encouraged to sign up for as many possible appointments as they can along with the county’s system to increase chances of getting a vaccine sooner than later. Residents are asked not to double book an appointment to make sure there are as many available for others as possible.

Choe has no idea when others may become eligible to get a vaccine. It all depends on supplies. Next in line would be front line and essential workers, according to a schedule from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

He said Johnson & Johnson has now applied for emergency authorization from the Federal Drug Administration for its one-dose vaccine for use in adults. The FDA advisory committee is expected to meet on Feb. 26 to talk about the application, and the agency could authorize use of the vaccine a few weeks after that meeting.

Currently only two vaccines are approved, the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for use in persons 16 years of age and older and the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for use in persons 18 years of age and older. Both require two doses.

Choe said the vaccine being used at DOH’s sites staffed by volunteer paramedics is from Pfizer with Moderna being used most often by local hospitals. He said both are safe and effective and encouraged people to get vaccinated as soon as they could.

He said some people are fearful of getting vaccinated and he suggests using reliable sources of information about the vaccine, not social media. He said studies had been done that proved the vaccines were safe and effective.

Meanwhile, Choe says people should continue to wear face mask and social distance. Keep to small groups and keep to your own circles.

And stay in touch with the latest information. For the latest updates in Pinellas, visit https://covid19.pinellascounty.org/vaccines/.

For those without internet access, call 844-770-8548 to register to receive a vaccination appointment and to get information.

Eggers requests that everyone try to remain patient.

Burton said county staff would continue its efforts to get information out of the public as quickly as possible and work on ways to improve the registration process.

“The biggest issue is the supply,” he said. “We hope it gets better.”

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