TALLAHASSEE — Florida’s program for vaccinating residents and staff at long-term care facilities against the coronavirus is complete, the state’s director of emergency management told lawmakers Thursday, saying that would free up resources for the state’s broader inoculation strategy.
Appearing before a legislative select committee on the response to the pandemic, the director, Jared Moskowitz, echoed Gov. Ron DeSantis’s concern over inadequate deliveries of life-saving vaccines to meet the intense demand.
But unlike the Republican governor he works for, Moskowitz, a former Democratic state lawmaker, asserted that President Joe Biden “has inherited a mess.”
Incoming U.S. health officials who have barely been on the job for a week have been taking stock of the country’s vaccine inventory and have been hard-pressed to tell states just how much is on hand. That has led to uncertainty among states, Moskowitz said, even as his state has expanded vaccination sites.
He said the bottleneck in vaccinations is not due to a lack of a distribution infrastructure. The burden, he said, is on the federal officials to speed up vaccine shipments to states like Florida.
“You’ve all heard of (vaccination) pods closing or hospitals canceling appointments – that’s all linked to supplies. Things have not been perfect. There have been issues. We recognize that. But when they arise, we fix them,” he told lawmakers.
The vaccine has been a precious commodity, prompting health officials to plead for patience amid intense demand and frustration as the state awaits more shipments.
State Surgeon General Scott Rivkees has urged vaccination sites not to waste unused vaccines, but state health officials acknowledged that 3,344 doses as of Wednesday were spoiled because of damaged vials or lack of use before the medicine went bad.
The state health department said 99.8% of shots given to date were administered without any issue, spoilage or waste.?
DeSantis put seniors 65 and older at the head of the line when he opened up vaccines to the broader public, citing their vulnerability to the disease. The governor sidestepped federal recommendations to give early priority for the vaccine to essential workers like grocery store employees and teachers.
Sen. Jason Pizzo, a Miami Democrat who serves on the pandemic committee, took issue with the governor’s vaccine distribution plan, saying that the criteria for shots should now be widened to include those essential workers and others whose jobs put them at risk because of regular contact with the public.
“It’s not as if the 4.5 million 65 and over population in Florida all want it. There are lower ages with greater exposure who may want it,” Pizzo said in an interview after the hearing.
Pizzo also said that the governor should distribute vaccines more equitably, as concern rises that some communities of color and poorer areas don’t have equal access to the protection against a disease that has infected nearly 1.7 million people in Florida and killed more than 26,000.
Moskowitz conceded that some areas of the state, particularly communities of color, may not be getting equal access to vaccines. He also acknowledged that the state would have to do better on that score – particularly on the public relations front as DeSantis travels to the state to announce vaccination center openings in communities mostly populated by affluent white Floridians.
“Just because I put up a site in the minority community, it does not guarantee access,” he asserted to reporters after the hearing. “There’s no doubt that minorities are underrepresented, based on the population getting the vaccine. Some of that is access, but a lot of that is hesitancy.”
By that, Moskowitz was referring to reluctance by some people, particularly African Americans, to be vaccinated because of mistrust based on historical unethical government practices in studies involving Black people. To counteract the distrust, state health officials are hoping to launch a public relations blitz using a $1.6 million grant to help persuade those communities that the vaccines are safe and necessary to protect public health.
Earlier this month, DeSantis announced partnerships with African American churches to help persuade parishioners to be more accepting of the vaccines.
Vaccinating people in long-term care facilities has been a top priority in the fight against the COVID-19 outbreak, and state officials are now focused on administering shots to the broader community – with immediate priority for those 65 and older.
Some of the first outbreaks in the United States occurred at senior care facilities, prompting health officials nationwide to better protect residents at such facilities because of their susceptibility to contracting the disease.
Moskowitz told lawmakers that as of Thursday, all residents and employees at more than 3,000 assisted living facilities and 4,000 nursing homes across the state have been offered the vaccine, even if the state could not compel everyone in such facilities to get shots.