Vaccinations to start here this week and next

Officials say nursing home residents, front-line medical workers will get vaccines first

Mark Lander, the Marion Administrator of the Florida Department of Health Marion County, speaks about COVID-19 as the Marion County Commission meets in the McPherson Governmental Complex in Ocala, Fla. on Tuesday, Oct. 6, 2020. [Bruce Ackerman/Ocala Gazette] 2020.

With COVID-19 cases skyrocketing in Marion County, help is on the way.

Pfizer’s vaccine has been shipped to Florida, and Marion County is prepared to start giving residents shots starting as early as this week.

Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered 179,400 doses of the vaccine for the entire state of Florida. The first group to get the vaccine will consist of frontline workers and residents and staff at long-term health care facilities. People who are 65 and older, first responders and essential workers would then be next in line.

According to the Florida Department of Health, Marion County reported 143 new cases on Monday, pushing the county’s total to more than 15,000 positive cases in all. Marion has reported under 100 new cases just three days in December.

In all, 428 people have died from COVID-19 since the beginning of the pandemic. Of the 428 deaths, 159 have occurred in long-term care health facilities.

The county doesn’t know how many doses it will have yet, but long-term care residents and staff may get some as early as this week, according to Christy Jergens, the public information officer for the Florida Department of Health. Marion County hospitals may have some doses by next week.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey’s five-year estimates, 29.3 percent of Marion County residents are 65 or older, the 10th-highest in the state of Florida. 

The Pfizer vaccine, which was given emergency use authorization on Dec. 11, requires two doses 21 days apart and is 95 percent effective after the second shot. It has been authorized for use in people aged 16 or older and must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius. The county has purchased ultra-cold storage freezers to successfully store the vaccine, according to Jergens.

Of the 179,400 doses shipped to Florida, 97,500 are being sent to five pilot hospitals across the state. Another 60,450 doses are being sent to CVS and Walgreens to administer vaccines to long-term care facilities through the Federal Pharmacy Program. The remaining 21,450 will be sent to the Florida Department of Health in Broward and Pinellas County.

However, DeSantis announced on Tuesday that there will be a delay on two Pfizer shipments that combine for almost 500,000 doses due to a production error. 

By next week, the state hopes to start vaccinations at local hospitals. It is also expected that the Moderna vaccine will receive its emergency use authorization this week so that people can start to receive that vaccine next week.

“The more providers we have, when we get enough vaccine, it’ll open it up to other individuals who want to go in and get vaccinated at their local physician’s office,” Lander said.

The Moderna vaccine is also authorized for people aged 16 or older and is 95% effective after two doses 28 days apart. Unlike the Pfizer vaccine, however, it can be stored at -20 degrees Celsius and has a much longer shelf life. According to DeSantis, the state will be receiving 530,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine by the end of the month.

Lander estimates that it might take “three to four weeks” to vaccinate nursing homes before expanding it to local communities.

“We know that there is a priority for this first week or two that they’re pushing out,” Lander said. “Once we get through the initial phases of the long-term care and the hospitals, then we’re going to see this thing moving—and I hate to steal the president’s term—but at warp speed. That’s really where we’re at starting today and moving forward of getting these vaccines out and into people’s arms.”

There currently isn’t an exact timeline for when the vaccine could become available to the public.

“Updates on the timeline for the general public will be provided as those plans become available,” Jergens said in an email. “The state is committed to providing the vaccine to each priority group and to the general public as quickly as possible; however, much of these plans is dependent on vaccine supply.”

The Marion County Board of County Commissioners also passed a walk-on item on Tuesday that created a partnership between the Marion County Fire Department and the Florida Department of Health. The fire department’s 402 paramedics will be able to administer vaccinations under the agreement. Lander noted that the Department of Health has worked with the fire department in the past with hepatitis A vaccinations and swabbing.

“Our mission has always been to protect lives and property, that mission stays the same, the challenges tend to change, and this is an example of that,” said Fire Chief James Bunta. “We’re working on plans, working with our partners on how we’re going to accomplish this task, but we will do it.”

Lander said his biggest concern with the vaccine is the messaging to the public. He doesn’t expect a large portion of Marion County residents to refuse to get their shots, but it is an important issue to tackle nonetheless.

“We’ve seen it in past histories with H1N1 in ‘08, ‘09, there’s been hesitancy on vaccinations, and so it got a slow roll-off and then it picked back up to speed,” Lander said. “We want this one upfront, individuals out taking that vaccine, so the state has been working on their messaging piece and to show that this is very safe and effective.”

While the news of a vaccine being on the way may be exciting, Lander urges residents to continue to be careful and social distance.

“We have to remember, during these times, we have to still continue to practice mitigation measures during this whole vaccination process,” Lander said. “Social distancing, face measures, stay at home when you’re sick, be cautious.”

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