High demand at Lee County’s first-come, first-serve COVID-19 vaccination sites led officials to close off winding wait lines before a single shot was administered Wednesday, but that could soon be an issue of the past.
Lee County Manager Roger Desjarlais told reporters Wednesday he is “pretty confident” a reservation-based system could launch within a week.
“We’ve had our technology people working on it for a couple of days and we think we may have a solution,” Desjarlais said. “We are not sure just yet, but our goal is to have a reservation system available some time within a week so that we don’t have 2,000 showing up at a site.”
This week’s rollout at rotating vaccine sites in the county has resulted in long, winding lines of hundreds of people, including older, high-risk residents who are choosing to hunker down in public space overnight or arrive in the early morning hours.
While officials have not supported the campouts for vaccine lines, the delivery process has helped reach nearly 5,500 people, according to county figures.
“At this time, vaccine sites are set up on a first-come-first serve basis,” explained Tammy Yzaguirre, the spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Lee County. “This is to allow as many people as possible to get the vaccine and appointments to not be filled by no-shows or people booking appointments at multiple vaccine sites.”
An online registration system won’t launch until the county is satisfied that the volume of people trying to get online will not cause the website to crash. When it does go online, officials hope it will simplify the process.
“It will be simple, the simpler the better,” Desjarlais said. “The real goal, of course, is for the supply to get better, more vaccines for private physician offices because that’s where the work is really going to get done, that’s when the masses are going to get their vaccines.”
The county is looking at ideas to control the number of people who would come out on a particular day by reserving access to particular categories of residents on particular days.
The two-dose Moderna vaccine is being offered only to frontline health workers or people who are 65 and older. While Lee County residents are the priority, eligible people who make the line cut won’t be turned away, health officials reported.
A booster shot is needed 28 days after the first dose, and recipients need to make sure they are given a second dose by the same manufacturer.
Desjarlais said some Lee County residents have been upset to see that people from other states and even other countries are able to get vaccinations and, if they are early enough, bump county residents from a shot at getting the vaccine.
“The reason is pretty simple. This is a federal program. These vaccines are provided by the federal government at not cost to the county, at no cost to the cities, at no cost to the state,” Desjarlais said. “We are prohibited from turning anyone away. It doesn’t matter if they are from another county, another state, another country, we are not allowed to do that.”
On Wednesday, vaccinations were scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. at Lakes Regional Library in Fort Myers, the North Fort Myers Recreation Center and the Cultural Park Theatre in Cape Coral. All three sites met capacity by 6:30 a.m., the health department confirmed.
The county reported about 900 vaccinations at each of the Cape Coral and North Fort Myers sites and 1,000 vaccinations at the Fort Myers site.
Workers administered about 800 vaccinations Tuesday in Bonita Springs, with the Lehigh Acres and Fort Myers sites each administering about 600 shots, according to county figures.
Officials say 630 vaccinations were administered Monday in Estero.
By 7:15 a.m. Wednesday, workers were combing through a meandering line of people to hand out tickets to those who were eligible.
Among the crowd of hopefuls were Judy and Eddie Miller.
The Cape Coral residents arrived around 2:30 a.m. with sister, Sharyn Baldrick, 72. The family worried about the long lines and parking and wavered about whether to come to the vaccination site or delay it another week or two.
Ultimately, they decided it was in the best interest of Eddie, 82, who suffered a stroke one month ago.
“I worry for him more than anything else, you know,” said wife Judy, 76.
“I wasn’t going to come,” said Eddie. His wife, shaking her head, responded, “I talked him into coming.”
The trio huddled around Eddie’s wheelchair in quilts and jackets in the early morning light with sister Baldrick leaning on her walker for a support.
“I would like to see them do it by reservations or something by certain times, rather than how they are,” Judy Miller said. “I think they could do it that way.”
Since Monday, vaccination sites have attracted hundreds of early risers and all-nighters, each eager to be administered the COVID-19 immunization.
Desjarlais told reporters he understands why the availability of the vaccine has drawn people who are becoming frustrated at the long lines and relatively short supply of inoculations.
“The stories that we’re hearing would just break your heart. People who haven’t seen their grandkids for the last 10 months to a year and people who haven’t been able to visit family during the holidays,” Desjarlais said. “Now all of a sudden, and I mean all of a sudden with very little warning, the vaccines are starting to make their way into Florida.”
Knowing what they were up against, Judy Miller packed their car with blankets, coffee and pillows in case they could get out of the line to lie down. When they were unloading Eddie’s wheelchair, other people came over to help.
“The people have been very, very nice and very, very considerate,” she said. “Matter of fact, they helped me set the wheelchair up here. They even came and helped me get it across the grass. Very, very helpful, the people around us were.”
During Wednesday’s vaccinations, workers at the Cape Coral site offered people with mobility issues, such as those requiring wheelchairs and walkers, a special outdoor area to receive their shots. This allowed them to avoid stairs.
The be-good-to-your-neighbor vibe was felt throughout the crowd.
“They’ve been very cooperative, very patient, very understanding, very compliant in terms of when we’ve asked them to move, they’ve moved,” said Rob Hernandez, Cape’s Coral’s city manager. “And that’s helped make this go a lot smoother because we didn’t have to spend a lot of time managing the crowd. The crowd pretty much managed themselves so we could focus on getting the site set up.”
The vast majority of setup was accomplished in a few hours Tuesday. About 40 to 50 employees from all the city, county and state agencies were working at the site Wednesday, said Cape Coral Fire Chief Ryan Lamb.
“It wasn’t just police, it wasn’t just fire, it’s truly emergency management,” Lamb said, as workers from parks and recreation, support staff and volunteers pitched in. “It’s truly emergency management. It was kind of a spur-of-the-moment rock concert.”
The Taylor family of Cape Coral saw the setup process from start to finish.
The early birds arrived in their motorhome around 10 a.m. Tuesday — a full day before any vaccines would be given out at the Cape Coral site.
“There was so much more involved in setting it up, and I’m glossing it over, but watching them set up was interesting, and they’ve all been very, very nice,” he said.
Although he is not one to wait in lines, Bill Taylor said the experience was “wonderful” and the people working the site and waiting in line created a “congenial atmosphere.”
“Everybody is so sick and tired of this pandemic. We want to end it. And the vaccine is obviously the way to do it and our options are to come here and spend the night and be sure we get it, or wait until the next time they get a handful of it and it will be no better than today, or the time after,” Bill Taylor said. “Instead of having all the paranoia about what’s next week and the week after, I said let’s bite the bullet, go there and get it done.”
Just as the sun was rising, the Taylors could be found within the first 10 spots in line. Bill was covered up with a blanket in his portable rocking chair, while Anne, 72, sat next to him in a pop-up chair.
“I don’t care if I’m first or 50th, I just want to be sure to get my shot,” Bill Taylor, 74, said.
Those who missed out on a vaccine Wednesday were encouraged to try again next week when new dates, times and locations are announced, said Hernandez, Cape Coral’s city manager.
“I just want to remind folks again that these vaccination sites are going to be popping up all over for the next several months, so if folks don’t get a shot today or the next one, they shouldn’t despair,” Hernandez said. “But, in the meantime, until they get their shots, their second shot, they still need to practice social distancing, wearing masks, washing their hands, all of that.”
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