While Brevard County commissioners on Tuesday approved an expanded distribution plan for COVID-19 vaccines involving the county’s three major hospital systems, officials say that the issue frustrating so many people is a lack of access to the medicine, not any problems with delivery.
Both commissioners and other county officials agree that continuing to expand Brevard’s vaccine distribution capacity won’t do any good if the county doesn’t get a larger supply of vaccine from the state — and the state doesn’t get a larger supply from the federal government.
Case in point: The Florida Department of Health-Brevard received 1,500 vaccine doses this week for distribution to those 65 and older and to front-line medical staff with direct patient contact. The appointment slots were filled within 11 minutes, with most of the people who went online seeking an appointment leaving without one.
All 1,500 doses were scheduled to be administered in two days — Tuesday and Wednesday — at a drive-thru site outside the DOH complex in Viera.
The Department of Health site could have handled 6,000 doses a week — four times what it actually received for this week’s distribution.
“It all boils down to supply,” said Brevard County Emergency Management Director John Scott, whose county department is helping the Florida Department of Health with appointment scheduling and logistics issues for the Viera site.
County Commission Vice Chair Kristine Zonka, who is a nurse-practitioner with Health First, said she believed the Department of Health in Brevard is doing a good job in getting the vaccine doses it receives from the state “into arms as quickly as possible.”
The problem is there’s just not enough vaccines available to meet the demand.
“I wish we had more vaccines,” Zonka said.
Indeed, as Zonka said, the vaccine administration process appears to have been going smoothly at the Department of Health site in Viera, as well as at the 22 Publix supermarket pharmacies in Brevard that also are vaccine sites.
Each Publix pharmacy has the capacity to administer 100 to 125 vaccines a day for a total of 2,200 to 2,750 in Brevard County. But Brevard has more than 145,000 residents ages 65 and older.
So far, according to state data, 23,140 people ages 65 and above have received the first of the two recommended COVID-19 vaccine doses in Brevard, and 958 have received both doses. That’s about 17% of the total population over 65. The doses are administered three to four weeks apart, depending on the vaccine manufacturer.
“The pool of vaccines in the state, federally and globally is terrible,” County Commissioner Bryan Lober said.
Lober said he would like to see “substantially over 50%” of the overall population to have the COVID-19 vaccine, as a path to get out of the pandemic.
In Brevard, there have been a total of 35,764 people vaccinated, including those younger than 65, representing about 6% of the overall population. Of those, 30,845 received just the first dose and 4,919 got both.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said the state is getting about 266,000 vaccine first doses a week from the federal government to distribute to the state’s 67 counties.
“We obviously have demand that far outstrips that,” DeSantis said during a news conference Tuesday in Vero Beach, adding that the state has administered as many as 455,000 doses a week.
DeSantis said, of the 266,000 doses a week the state gets, about 70,000 a week are going to Publix, which now has 261 pharmacies in 20 counties that are part of the vaccination program, with the addition Tuesday of Indian River and St. Lucie counties.
Like Brevard and many other Florida counties, Publix has an online system for setting up a vaccination appointment.
“Obviously, getting that appointment, you’ve got to be quick on the trigger,” DeSantis said.
And the same is true for Department of Health appointment websites. That’s especially true now, because, with Publix stores now a major vaccination venue, relatively fewer doses are available at DOH sites, thus relatively fewer appointments.
With the Publix stores, Department of Health sites, other state-run vaccination sites and hospitals, DeSantis said: “We have the throughput that, if we can get more first doses given to Florida, we could be able to do that much more that much more quickly.”
But, DeSantis added, “We’re at the mercy of whatever is sent.”
That’s a similar situation to what Florida’s individual counties are in.
Brevard County officials are also hoping that, as Brevard demonstrates the ability to quickly deliver the vaccine doses it receives from the state, it might improve its chances to receive ever more doses in future shipments.
That was the goal of County Commission action Tuesday to authorize county staff to sign agreements with three hospital companies that would increase the vaccination capacity by 12,500 doses a week.
Under the plan:
- Health First would administer the vaccine at two sites in central and south Brevard.
- Parrish Medical Center would administer the vaccine at one site in north Brevard.
- Rockledge Regional Medical Center/Steward Family Hospital would administer the vaccine at two sites in central and south Brevard.
DeSantis and the Florida Division of Emergency Management have encouraged Florida counties to increase their vaccination distribution capacity. DeSantis has emphasized that entities that are able to use the supplies quickly will get the top priority in getting more vaccine.
According to a report from county staff to commissioners on the hospital vaccination proposal, “while all three hospitals are willing to provide this service to the community without charging the county, recipients or insurance companies, they have all asked that the commission consider a future reimbursement of some of their related expenses, should the county receive any additional federal relief funds.”
Brevard County Central Services Director Steven Darling said the hospital companies agreed to use their own staffs in administering the vaccines at their sites.
Darling said the hospital companies will not seek reimbursements from health insurance companies for their vaccine administration, and are aiming “to provide a community service.”
Darling said each hospital company will establish its own system for scheduling vaccine appointments, separate from the Health Department’s online system for its Viera drive-thru site.
County staff also has discussed with Caliburn Co./Comprehensive Health Services the potential for that company to establish a vaccination site, should the county begin to regularly receive more than 18,500 vaccines doses a week. County staff says Caliburn can establish a vaccination site in central Brevard that could vaccinate 5,000 people a week, with the ability to increase as supply allows.
A proposed $1.32 million contract with Caliburn would be funded through use of a previously authorized allocation of $2 million from the county’s public safety fund.
Commissioners approved the vaccine plan 4-0, with Zonka abstaining because she works for Health First.
Dave Berman is government editor at FLORIDA TODAY. His Political Spin column appears Sundays in FLORIDA TODAY.
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