Hundreds of senior citizens camp out in Florida for COVID-19 vaccine

A push to vaccinate people over the age of 65 in Florida has resulted in confusion and chaos in some areas, while others report smooth sailing.

In Daytona Beach, hundreds of senior citizens determined to get vaccinated against COVID-19 camped out inside their cars overnight in frigid temperatures to secure coveted spots in a vaccination line Tuesday morning, a day after seniors jammed the roads as they headed for the vaccination site.

A couple of hours north, in the town of Orange Park, the process appeared to be going more smoothly.

“Very quick, very easy. It didn’t hurt,” said 70-year-old Teresa Knight. She and her 74-year-old husband got the vaccine Tuesday morning after making an appointment online. “It gives me hope that we’re maybe coming out at the other end,” Knight said. “I know it’s going to be difficult over the next few months but I feel hopeful.”

In Daytona, officials tried to avoid a repeat of Monday’s traffic jams by opening a stadium’s parking lot to overnight camping for people 65 and older. By 7:30 p.m. on Monday, senior citizens in 200 vehicles were on the property, set to brave overnight temperatures in the low 40s.

“We have blankets and we have pillows, so we’re OK,” Mary Wilde told WESH.

The Daytona Beach News Journal reported that officials planned to close the gates once 1,000 people entered, matching the number of vaccines available for Tuesday.

The day before, seniors gridlocked the roads leading to the stadium as they jockeyed for position to be among the first to get the vaccines being administered by Volusia County’s office of the Florida Department of Health.

Daytona Beach spokeswoman Susan Cerbone said in a statement that people had camped out along roadsides despite warnings from police. That’s why they decided to open the stadium’s gates for parking.

“This change will hopefully remove overnighters from the roadway and alleviate early morning traffic congestion,” she said.

By Monday, more than 260,000 Floridians had been vaccinated, most of them health care workers and first responders.

The state has received more than 960,000 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines — which means that 700,000 doses are sitting in freezers waiting to be injected into the arms of Floridians. But both vaccines require two doses — an initial inoculation and a booster shot weeks later.

About 83% of those who have died from the disease in Florida have been older than 65. Florida has one of the nation’s oldest populations, with 4.4 million of the state’s 21 million people 65 years or older.

During news conferences Monday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis warned hospitals against stockpiling vaccines and urged them to work more quickly to vaccinate elderly Floridians. He has ordered hospitals to inform state officials how they plan to offer vaccinations to the public.

The governor said hospitals that don’t meet vaccination goals will see their allotment reduced and vaccines redistributed to other providers.

“I do not want to see a vaccine sitting around not being used when you could be putting a shot in an arm,” he said.

Mary Mayhew, chief executive officer of the Florida Hospital Association, said the state’s hospitals are “working tirelessly” to serve the community and roll out the vaccinations.

“Hospitals are absolutely committed to efficiently administering the vaccines,” she said. “The vast majority of the vaccine just arrived within the last week and a half prior to two holidays.”

DeSantis said he intends to convert some COVID-19 testing sites into vaccination sites, recruit places of worship in underserved communities to help vaccinate seniors of color and hire 1,000 more nurses to help with injections.

“We believe the sooner the better. There’s no time to waste,” he said.

Still, the rollout to the senior citizens has been fraught with complications, especially in larger counties.

County health departments across Florida were met with challenges with their online reservation systems on Monday. Pinellas County opened its system at noon, but the portal experienced trouble at that time. In Hillsborough County, the registration website for seniors wanting the COVID-19 vaccine had crashed apparently due to the high volume of traffic.

In Broward County, the signup website crashed repeatedly, and on Monday, officials said all 26,465 slots were full.

“This is a very difficult logistical operation,” DeSantis said. “I’m not going to say that there’s not been any problems, but I think all in all, you know, the distribution has gone probably better than what we could have reasonably expected.”

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