Clinics underway at Twin Lakes Park
Within 30 minutes after Sarasota County’s noon launch of its new COVID-19 vaccination registration system on Jan. 20, 42,000 people had signed up, Rich Collins, director of the county’s Emergency Services Department, reported during a news media briefing that afternoon.
“That’s about 1,400 registrations per minute,” Collins added.
By the end of the first hour, he said, the registration total had grown to approximately 50,000.
By 3 p.m., county staff reported that the figure had climbed to more than 56,800, and that did not include second persons — such as spouses — whose names had been entered, county Media Relations Officer Brianne Grant reported.
As of 10:30 a.m. on Jan. 21, the figure was up to 68,100 and counting, Sara Nealeigh, the county media relations officer for the Emergency Services Department, told The Sarasota News Leader.
Media Relations Officer Grant let the News Leader know that, by 3:30 p.m. on Jan. 21, the number was above 72,000, “not including second-person sign-ups.”
During the Jan. 20 media briefing, Collins said he expected that, in most cases, each person registering was signing up one other individual.
Collins summed up the primary news of the day: “The registration system is working.” County Emergency Services staff had spent weeks collaborating with the Florida Department of Health in Sarasota County (DOH-Sarasota) to transition to a better mechanism for residents to figuratively get in line for the vaccinations, he pointed out.
“We heard our residents loud and clear,” Collins acknowledged, that the EventBrite system DOH-Sarasota initially used “was very taxing.”
Commissioners complained on Jan. 13 to Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, that they had been inundated with messages from constituents expressing frustration about the EventBrite process.
Along with the online registration option, county staff has contracted with a vendor to provide a call-in system — 941-861-8297 (861-VAXS). Persons also may use the Everbridge mobile app; once on that app, they should search for 941 VAX.
Calls are accepted from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday, Nealeigh of Emergency Services told the News Leader.
Fifty people were working virtually to accept the calls, Collins explained. At one point, he said, approximately 400 people were in a queue, waiting for caller assistance; that queue can accommodate 600. Many of those contacting the call center had questions to ask, he indicated.
“We’re working to increase the number of call-takers and system capacity,” Collins said.
Additionally, Collins noted that county librarians have been trained to help people fill out registration forms online through the Everbridge system.
State of Florida officials still are working on their own system, Collins noted during the briefing. Asked whether the county would transition to that at some point, Collins replied, “It’s going to take a few weeks” for that to launch. “Down the road,” he continued, county staff might “migrate to [the state] system.”
In explaining how appointments will work, on the basis of the new system, Chuck Henry, the county’s Health Officer, pointed out that DOH-Sarasota staff will vaccinate persons on a first-come, first-served basis.
By the afternoon of Jan. 20, Henry added, staff hoped to start notifying individuals who would be able to get the latest batch of 3,300 Moderna vaccine shots during drive-through clinics scheduled for Thursday and Friday at Twin Lakes Park on Clark Road in Sarasota. (Media Relations Officer Grant told the News Leader late in the afternoon of Jan. 21 that 1,100 people ended up being scheduled to receive a COVID-19 vaccination that day, with 1,800 people notified to come to the drive-through clinic on Jan. 22.)
Each person registered would receive information about the block of time in which he or she would be vaccinated, Henry noted during the media briefing — not just for this week’s clinic but for future events.
No one should show up more than 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled time, he emphasized of the Jan. 21 and Jan. 22 clinics. “We don’t want traffic backing up onto Clark Road from Twin Lakes.”
Only frontline health care workers and individuals age 65 and older are eligible for the shots at this point, Henry also stressed. Additionally, as a result of a new directive from Gov. Ron DeSantis, the vaccinations will be limited to Florida residents, though snowbirds will be included. A person will need to show a driver’s license or other documentation, such as a utility bill or a copy of a lease, to prove residency, he pointed out.
They also should bring their filled-in registration forms, Henry continued, as well as their appointment confirmations. Those unable to print out the forms will be able to complete the documents on-site, he added. Nonetheless, he noted, “It helps expedite things if the forms are already filled out.”
Earlier this week, DeSantis said that the state would not permit “vaccine tourists” to fly in, get shots, and fly back home.
Further, Henry noted that the registration system has been designed to give each person three options for an appointment time. For example, he said, an individual might be scheduled to see his or her regular physician at the same time as the appointment block the system provides. In that case, Henry continued, the person can respond, “No,” and the system will try twice more. If the other two options do not work either, he added, “They get moved to the end of the line. … But even then, they’ll still be in the system and registered.”
In response to another question regarding whether an individual will be able to find out what place he or she has in the virtual line for appointments, Collins of Emergency Services replied, “The team will be working on that.”
Given the number who already had signed up in the first hour on Jan. 20, he added, it would take time to compile that data.
Staff did send out a test alert just before 7 p.m. on Jan. 20 to all those who had registered earlier in the day, to provide confirmation that those registrations had been accepted. County Media Relations Officer Grant had pointed out during the media briefing that that test would be conducted, and the News Leader confirmed it from one set of Jan. 20 registrants.
In response to a question about why the registration system was launched about the same time that President Joe Biden was being inaugurated, Henry explained that staff originally planned to let registrations begin at 2 p.m. that day, instead of noon. However, he said, staff became concerned that that might be too late to ensure that notifications would go out to all the persons who could vaccinated at Twin Lakes on Thursday.
“At the same time,” he said, “the technological team … wasn’t comfortable moving forward any earlier.”
Henry added that no one on staff had the intention of interfering with the national events of the day. Noon was “just the time that worked the very best for all [members of the team].”
And even though no requirement existed for people to start registering at noon, Henry did acknowledge that people understood the appointments would be allocated on a first-come, first-served basis.
Second doses and larger clinics
In regard to persons who need their second doses of the Moderna vaccine — which the pharmaceutical company has recommended should occur 28 days after the first one — Henry said, “As of this time, we have not received the vaccine … We understand the state is procuring those orders now and confirming numbers.”
The DOH-Sarasota staff does not plan to notify people who received their initial shots at the Health Department in downtown Sarasota, he added, until it has received confirmation that the vaccine is being shipped to the county. However, after it gets that notification, he continued, staff most likely will use the email addresses people provided on the EventBrite system to let the persons know where and when to get their second doses.
The first vaccinations occurred at the Health Department’s facility on Ringling Boulevard on Dec. 29, Dec. 30 and Dec. 31, 2020, he pointed out.
Henry reiterated his earlier point: “We’ll be contacting you when it’s time for you to come back in …”
In past media briefings, Steve Huard, the public information officer for DOH-Sarasota, has explained that it is not absolutely necessary for the second shot to be given to a person exactly 28 days after the first one.
Asked on Jan. 29 when DOH-Sarasota staff would consider conducting bigger clinics, Henry explained that his goal is to schedule such events at a central location in the county seven days a week, but that initiative can begin only when enough vaccine becomes available. “Really, what’s holding us up right now is the limited number of vaccines coming into the state,” he pointed out.
Henry pointed out to the county commissioners last week that the federal government notifies state officials about when to expect vaccine shipments, and then state leaders determine how to distribute the doses.
In terms of getting large volumes of vaccine, Henry said, “I think we’re probably several weeks away from that.”
Both Henry and Collins asked for county residents’ patience.
At this early stage of the new registration process, Henry added, “There’s obviously more demand than we have vaccines to hand out.”
Moreover, he said, “We still have plenty of virus circulating in our county,” especially compared to the lowest levels over the past year, which were recorded in August and September 2020.
People need to continue to wear masks when they cannot practice social distancing, he stressed. They also should wash their hands “frequently and vigorously,” Henry added, and they should stay at home if they feel sick.
As more people in the county are vaccinated, Henry said, the infection rate will go down. “We’ll know we’re having a huge impact when we begin to see the number of new cases drop in our community.”