Individuals encouraged to check department’s website each day and to look for social media updates from Sarasota County Government
Given the limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccine that the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) has been receiving, Steve Huard, the organization’s public information officer, is asking people to be patient.
While an effort is underway to establish a call-in system for appointments, he said during a Jan. 5 media briefing, the best way at this time to try to secure a slot is to check the department’s website each day at 3:30 p.m.
A bright yellow box at the top of the homepage will provide updates, he explained. People then should scroll down to the block that says, “Click Here To Access COVID-19 Vaccine Appointments at FDOHSarasota.eventbrite.com.”
“People need only to click that link right there,” Huard added.
“We’ve seen other counties have a lot more problems with EventBrite,” he acknowledged, referring to the software program that often is used for ticketing for arts and entertainment events. “We worked through our [system] very quickly. … So far, we’re real positive about the operation …”
He also noted that appointment slots go fast for those who try to secure them online. For example, Huard said, more than 167,000 people tried to access the EventBrite system on Sunday to secure the next 800 appointments. On Monday, he continued, about 62,000 people tired to sign up for the slots for vaccinations on Wednesday and Thursday.
If staff sets up the EventBrite system to provide 500 appointments, he explained, only the first 500 people to work through the website are able to get those slots. The rest are put into what he described as a virtual “waiting room.”
“You can go into the waiting room and not make it any further,” Huard noted. “It’s essential to start out on our website,” he stressed. “Refresh, refresh, refresh till you see the screen that shows the appointment blocks.”
Huard also encouraged people to check the county’s COVID-19 vaccine webpage for information and to keep an eye on the county’s social media posts.
Further, Huard warned about “spoof pages” that have been set up by scammers on the internet. “The Department of Health will never ask for money or a payment for a vaccine,” he emphasized.
As of Jan. 5, Huard noted, DOH-Sarasota had received 4,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine. By the 1 p.m. start of the press briefing that day, he continued, staff had delivered 2,800 of those shots to people in the priority groups in the county, which include frontline health care workers, persons in long-term care facilities — including staff members — and individuals age 65 and older, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has directed.
Sarasota County has about 150,000 persons eligible for the vaccine, Huard pointed out.
Staff anticipated providing another 800 vaccinations on both Wednesday and Thursday at the Health Department’s location, which is 2200 Ringling Blvd. in downtown Sarasota, he said; thus, the supply would be exhausted by the end of the appointment slots on Thursday. “And then we’ll be waiting for the state to resupply us.”
DOH-Sarasota has been averaging about 100 vaccinations per hour during each event, he noted, pointing out that the same nurses who had been administering COVID-19 tests are those who have been giving the shots. “So our folks here are really doing double duty … and working multiple hours every day …”
The goal is to deliver the vaccine as efficiently as possible, he stressed.
To that end, the department also is working with Sarasota County Emergency Management staff to set up drive-through vaccination locations, Huard said, as well as a an appointment call-in system.
“We don’t want to launch something and then have to pull it back,” he added.
Asked whether the Health Department has requested more staffing support from the state to deliver the vaccinations, he responded,
“We’ve already requested additional services from the state.” However, he said, unless the department obtains extra funding for personnel, it can hire no more nurses.
“We are looking at areas throughout the county,” Huard continued, for drive-through and walk-up vaccination clinics. However, he emphasized, setting those up is predicated upon having sufficient supply of the vaccine to distribute. Still, he noted, “It’s essential that we bring our services to every part of our community.”
He again emphasized, “We’re working with a very small, limited number of vaccines.” Huard further stressed that the effort is a federal initiative that is being handled by the State of Florida. “We don’t have a clear line on our scheduled reception of new vaccine.” However, he said, he anticipates the department will receive more of the vaccine next week.
Just a day after the media briefing, Sarasota Memorial Hospital (SMH) announced, through the Health Department, that it would conduct vaccination clinics on Saturday, Jan. 9, and Sunday, Jan. 10, for persons 65 and older who could remain in the county to get their second shots 28 days later. Those appointment slots — for at least 3,000 people, out of the hospital’s Moderna supply — were to be made available at 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 6 through the Health Department’s EventBrite link.
Importance of the second shot
Huard talked this week of how important it is for anyone who gets a shot to remain in the county for at least another 28 days, to ensure the person will get the second dose. He emphasized that Health Department staff wants to make certain that persons who receive the Moderna vaccine — which is what Sarasota County and SMH have available — also get their second Moderna shot. He pointed out that it is inadvisable for an individual to get one shot of the Moderna vaccine and then a second shot with a different vaccine. Taking two doses of the same vaccine allows for the greatest efficacy, he said.
“The real trick,” he noted, is that second dose. If a person gets the first shot, Huard explained, and fails to remain in the county for the second dose, “It could be troublesome” for the person to get the follow-up shot of the same vaccine in a different location.
“The federal government set [the program] up, to my understanding, as we use vaccine, they resupply said vaccine,” Huard said. “The federal government is holding that second dose … for that person for that state. … As supply is used in the counties … the numbers are continually updated.”
For example, he continued, for DOH-Sarasota, “They’ll automatically start the shipment process for the next batch,” based on vaccine availability for the entire state. “How they determine that percentage, I’m afraid I don’t know.”
Hopes for larger batches of vaccine
Asked whether the department expects to see a ramping-up of the numbers of doses it receives, Huard replied that that is his hope, and that hope is the basis for the planning for the drive-through clinics countywide, for example.
“As a small county health department,” he added, “the fact that we were able to turn around the doses that we received and get them into the arms of so many citizens so quickly really shows the resolve of our organization and the county to make this happen for our citizens.”
Asked why DOH-Sarasota has been allowing snowbirds to get vaccinated along with full-time residents, Huard referred to Gov. DeSantis’ directive, which did not exclude snowbirds.
Huard also asked that persons who are age 65 and older who are in good health consider waiting until more vulnerable residents of the county have been vaccinated.
For an example, he said, a 65-year-old man “who’s out running 5 miles a day and is in perfect health” can remain safe by wearing a mask and practicing social distancing.
If such persons wait, Huard continued, that enables individuals with multiple health problems — “co-morbidities,” as health care workers describe the situation — to get their shots first.
“More vaccine will continue to come into the community,” Huard said. “Everybody doesn’t have to get it right now, today.”
Huard also responded to questions about people waiting in line outside the Health Department on Ringling Boulevard.
Staff is asking people to remain in their vehicles, he said, until about 15 minutes before the start of their appointment block. That will ensure individuals do not stand in line for hours, he pointed out.
Moreover, he continued, if individuals are more advanced in age or have serious health concerns, each of those persons should consider asking a younger individual to accompany them and stand in line until it is close to the time for the person with the appointment to be vaccinated.