More than 128,000 people believed to be registered in county’s COVID-19 system, county administrator says, though staff working to eliminate duplications

Health Department delivering 3,800 first doses of vaccine this week, along with 3,500 second doses

This is the banner on the county webpage dedicated to information about registering for the COVID-19 vaccinations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

As of the morning of Jan. 26, Sarasota County staff estimated that approximately 128,000 people were registered for COVID-19 vaccinations through the new Everbridge system launched at noon on Jan. 20.

About 90,000 accounts had been created as of Jan. 25, County Administrator Jonathan Lewis told the county commissioners during their regular meeting on Jan. 26. (During a media briefing the following day, Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, reported that the account total had climbed to more than 95,000.)

Lewis told the county commissioners that staff believes approximately 40% of the accounts include a second person — a spouse or caregiver, for example.

“But also, we had something in the neighborhood of about 9,000 of the accounts” that are believed to be duplicates, he said. For example, he indicated, a husband may have registered himself and his wife, and, unaware of that, the wife also may have registered the couple. “We’re having to go through and scrub those sorts of things.”

Additionally, Lewis continued, some accounts were abandoned about midway through the registration process, so staff will be following up with those persons, “to the best of our ability,” to determine whether the people trying to sign up encountered problems or had other issues that resulted in their failure to finish the process.

Lewis also reported that, by the end of this week, staff hoped to be able to notify everyone registered what number he or she has in the queue for a vaccination.

As it turned out, those numbers were released at noon on Jan. 28. In a YouTube video interview with Collins of Emergency Services, county Communications Department Director Donn Patchen explained how to find a person’s number; he used a fake account for that purpose.

A person should go to his or her account in the Everbridge system, Patchen said. Then the person should scroll down to the heading My Information and continue further until the individual sees the line that says, Account Number.

County Communications Director Donn Patchen uses a fake account in the Everbridge system to show the line that will tell a person his or her place in the queue for vaccinations. Image courtesy Sarasota County

If someone does not see the figure right away, Collins advised that the person should log out and log back in or either refresh the screen on his or her computer.

Then, to learn how many vaccinations the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County has scheduled so far, Collins said individuals should check the county webpage devoted to the vaccination effort:

This is the top of the homepage of the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County, as of the morning of Jan. 28. Image courtesy DOH-Sarasota

Further, Lewis pointed out on Jan. 26 that the call center staff established to assist people who cannot register online had processed almost 2,700 calls to the dedicated number, 941-861-VAXS (8297). “It’s been just absolutely amazing.”

“Are there people out there that had to wait 45 minutes … or an hour on the phone?” he continued. “Sure.” Nonetheless, he said, about 150,000 county residents are age 65 and older, which makes them eligible for the first round of vaccinations provided through the state.

An update on the vaccination process

This week, county Health Officer Chuck Henry — who also serves as director of the county’s Health and Human Services Department — told the commissioners that the Health Department received 7,300 doses of the Moderna vaccine. Out of that allotment, Henry continued, 3,800 were set aside for first shots, with the remainder to be given to people needing their second doses.

Asked how the allocation process works, Henry explained that the federal government notifies the state of its allotment, and then state leaders decide how to distribute those doses and informs the federal government. That results in the federal government’s shipping vaccine directly to the locations approved by the state, Henry added. “For the most part,” he said, the state has been providing Moderna’s vaccine to the health departments because it does not require the more intensive cold storage necessary for the Pfizer vaccine.

Chuck Henry. Photo courtesy Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County

The doses have “been coming UPS, mostly,” Henry noted.

However, he emphasized, the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) will not schedule clinics until staff is certain the vaccine has been shipped.

In response to a question from Commissioner Christian Ziegler, Henry pointed out that the Health Department typically will announce 1,000 appointment slots for a given day. Nonetheless, Henry said, “We may get 960 [people who show up],” leaving staff to wonder what happened to the other 40 people who were provided appointments.

At other times, Henry noted, staff might have an extra 10 people show up. His goal, he stressed, is not to waste any of the vaccine he receives. “So we’re really careful at the end of each vaccine day …”

With Florida’s Surgeon General having issued a directive that only state residents can get vaccinations, Ziegler asked Henry whether it would be possible for the Health Department to prioritize full-time county residents over snowbirds.

“That would be very difficult,” Henry replied.

A little over a week ago, Henry added, he saw county data showing that about 21% of the vaccines supplied thus far to Sarasota County went to out-of-county residents, while approximately 26% of Sarasota County residents received shots in other counties.

More distribution concerns

Ziegler also asked about the state program allowing Publix pharmacies to provide shots.

That initiative has been expanding in the state, Henry responded, including Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. However, Henry pointed out, the allotments going to Publix stores come out of the overall number of vaccines the counties with those participating stores receive at any given time. For example, Henry said, if Publix stores in Sarasota County were getting doses this week, the Health Department would have fewer doses to deliver.

Henry told the commissioners that he believes it is “a good thing” to allow other providers to give shots to the public. “But there’s just not enough vaccine coming into the state to make that happen.” Eventually, he added, as the federal government works to ramp up production, he anticipates more outlets where people can get their shots, including doctors’ offices.

This is among the numerous COVID-19 vaccination advisories that Sarasota County Communications staff has provided on Facebook. This is a photo from the Emergency Services Department Facebook page this week

Commissioner Nancy Detert told Henry that people want to know “if there is some sort of allotment based on [county] population,” which would ensure “that political powerhouse counties aren’t getting more than they should get.”

County population was not a factor at the outset of the distribution process, Henry replied, but the state has moved to that type of methodology. He understood, he added, that Sarasota County leaders communicated to state leaders concerns about the fact that Sarasota County has a greater percentage of people age 65 and over than many other counties. “I believe that was heard,” Henry said, because over the past two weeks, the state has shifted its allocations to take into account the number of people in each county in the priority group, which includes frontline health care workers.

Commissioner Ziegler also noted that, by Feb. 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis said he wants every staff member and resident of the state’s 700 nursing homes and 3,000 assisted living facilities to have had the opportunity to be vaccinated. Ziegler then asked Henry for an update on that facet of the process, as — Ziegler emphasized — “Overwhelmingly, the majority of the deaths” from COVID-19 have occurred in those facilities.

“My team does track elder care facilities,” Henry responded, though he did not have the data with him. He could provide that to the board members, Henry added, noting that the county has 130 elder care facilities.

Commissioners Michael Moran, Ziegler and Ron Cutsinger also stressed to Henry that if he needs extra resources from the county — especially in regard to additional staff members who can vaccinate people — to let them know right away.

“Right now, we’re working with a number of different medical groups … identifying volunteers,” Henry said, adding that his staff has put together “quite a long list.” Nonetheless, he continued, scheduling volunteers will be a major aspect of delivering 1,000 doses a day, seven days a week, once the county has sufficient vaccine available.

Yet, Henry pointed out, “The biggest need we’re going to have is vaccinators,” the people licensed to administer the shots. “Part of that is everybody in the state is trying to find those people.”

‘Lack of communication’ from state a point of contention

Yet another facet of the Jan. 26 discussion focused on board members’ concerns about how the state has handled the vaccine registration process.

Commissioner Moran told Henry, “Honestly, I’m getting completely frustrated, losing my patience at the lack of communication from state authorities on this.”

Commissioner Michael Moran. File image

Moran stressed that he was not upset with Henry. “I think you’re a massive asset to this county,” Moran said, addressing Henry. It was just that Henry was the only state employee present, Moran added. (All the county health departments are operated through the state, Henry has explained. That is a situation that may be unique to Florida, he told the commissioners on Jan. 13, as cities and counties in other states have independent health departments.)

Moran asked Henry if it would be a fair summary to say that county staff held off on creating a vaccination-specific registration system because of reports that the state would be launching a system that would serve all the counties.

“Absolutely fair,” Henry responded of Moran’s assessment.

In response to another question, Henry explained that the state has created a pilot registration website, which it launched about three weeks ago in various counties. However, Henry said, the state experienced problems early on with that system, including its being overwhelmed with people trying to sign up.

Another issue with which the state has had to contend, Henry continued, is the fact that the COVID-19 vaccines that have been approved must be delivered in two doses to ensure maximum effectiveness. “So we needed a more robust registration system.”

In a manner of summing up the state system, Henry added that it does not have the level of functionality that he and his staff at the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota), plus the leaders of the county’s Emergency Services Department, felt was necessary. That was why the county groups ended up establishing a vaccine registration system through the county’s Everbridge emergency alert software.

This is an email Commissioner Michael Moran sent to the county’s legislative delegation on Jan. 16. Image courtesy Sarasota County

Commissioner Ziegler, who is vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida, pointed out, “I’ve been talking to people at the federal level and also the state level,” specifically the Governor’s Office. “The biggest frustration” he hears from constituents, Ziegler continued, regards “the lack of communication” about which government entity is responsible for what part of the vaccination process.

“Even here locally,” Ziegler said, “most citizens just assume their county government is going to deliver for them.”