HIALEAH — Florida’s teachers and law enforcement officers who are 50 and older will be the next groups to get the coronavirus vaccine as the percentage of older residents inoculated is reaching a point where the program can be expanded, Gov. Ron DeSantis said Tuesday.
DeSantis did not say specifically when the new groups will be able to get the vaccine, but he expects it to be soon through the recently added sites run by the federal government.
Currently, Florida limits vaccines to residents 65 and older and frontline medical providers such as doctors and nurses. Many firefighters also fell into that group because they are paramedics, but DeSantis said any who have not been eligible and are 50 and above will also be added to the next wave.
DeSantis said at least 50% of the state’s 4 million residents who are 65 or older have been vaccinated, which is why Florida can soon start inoculating other groups. He said the number of residents currently ill with COVID-19 and hospitalized have continued to fall.
Almost 2 million Floridians have gotten the disease and more than 30,000 have died since it was first detected almost a year ago. About 5,800 new cases a day are currently being recorded, down from nearly 18,000 in early January after holiday parties helped spread the virus. About 4,100 Floridians were hospitalized Tuesday with the disease, down from 6,100 on Feb. 1. The daily number of deaths remains high at about 165, but that is down from 190 a day a month ago.
“You are going to see some positive trends because of these vaccines,” DeSantis said during a news conference at a Hialeah pharmacy. “We are trying to get the vaccine to the people it will have the most impact for.”
The unions representing the state’s police officers and teachers both said Tuesday the governor’s announcement is welcome news but does not go far enough. Both said the program needs to be quickly expanded to include all members of those professions, not just those 50 and older. At least 37 Florida educators and 27 law enforcement officers have died of COVID-19, according to the unions.
“It’s a start,” said Bobby Jenkins, president of the Florida Fraternal Order of Police, about the governor’s announcement. He said police officers are highly vulnerable to the disease “because we can’t always cover up or social distance.” He said police officers also tend to be younger, so limiting the vaccine to those 50 and over won’t have a huge effect overall.
The union is also trying to educate its members on the vaccine’s safety – he said polls of some departments show that only about 30% of officers say they will take the shot, with the rest concerned about unknown side effects. Medical officials have said serious side effects from the vaccine are extremely rare.
Andrew Spar, president of the Florida Education Association, said all teachers and staff, regardless of age, are at high risk and should be vaccinated as soon as possible, particularly those with health issues such as diabetes and asthma. There about 200,000 public school teachers and 100,000 support staff statewide and almost all of them are working on campus. The state also has more than 40,000 private school teachers and staff.
“The good news is that the governor is finally starting to listen to…what the medical and scientific community is saying – educators should be a priority,” Spar said. “I still think he’s approaching it (vaccinations) incorrectly….The reality is that this virus attacks people who are at high risk and age is not the only risk.”
Wayne Bernoska, president of Florida Professional Firefighters, said Tuesday’s announcement does not have as much of an effect on his members as many of them were already eligible – he was vaccinated in December. He said many firefighters were originally leery of getting the shot, but that is changing as they see their inoculated colleagues have had no side effects. He said that is important as firefighters live together when they are working.
Meanwhile, DeSantis also announced that 81 pharmacies owned by CVS will start offering the vaccine, primarily in Miami-Dade County. Those include 66 of the firm’s Hispanic-centric subsidiaries, CVS y Mas and Navarro Discount Pharmacies, in Miami-Dade.
His appearance drew criticism from Hialeah Mayor Carlos Hernandez, who called it a “dog and pony show.” Hernandez said his overwhelmingly Hispanic city has only received about 1,000 doses of the vaccine. About a quarter of its 230,000 residents have had the disease.
“I don’t feel we are getting the kind of service and attention we need,” he said.