OKEECHOBEE – At the Thursday, Jan. 28 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commission, Tiffany Collins, executive director for Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County, defended the decision to require people to make appointments for COVID-19 vaccinations in person on Jan. 26.
That decision resulted in hundreds of senior citizens lining up outside the health department, with some arriving at 11 p.m. on Monday night and many more filling the parking lot in the early morning hours on Tuesday.
“You have seniors lined up at the health department on appointment day because they want to be there,” she said. “They choose to be there. They want this vaccine.
“The demand is greater than the supply we are getting in this county,” she continued. “They feel this is the answer to protecting them from this virus.”
Collins said for the past few weeks, Okeechobee County has been receiving 300 doses of the vaccination a week for first-time doses. She said lining up in person to make appointments “is how they feel they have a chance at getting access to the 300 allotment Okeechobee is getting.”
“Vaccination distribution rollout is the health department’s top priority,” said Collins. “I have federal guidelines and state guidelines that I have to follow. My mission is to get vaccinations into arms.”
Collins said the lack of vaccine supply is the primary problem. “Okeechobee County has been receiving 300 first doses each week for the past few weeks,” she said. If they had more vaccine, the health department could do 300 shots a day, she added.
She said the health department and Emergency Operations Center have staffing resources to do a mass vaccination pod if the vaccine was available.
She said for Jan. 26, “I set up the appointments starting at 8 o’clock.” She said she did not ask seniors to line up hours earlier.
Collins said the county could provide more security “if you feel there are health and safety concerns of our citizens camping there overnight.
“As it is, I have county staff and EOC staff who have partnered with me and worked to put signage up for social distancing,” she said.
She said they working on traffic control, parking and “doing everything we can to speed things along.”
Collins pointed out that contrary to a comment on social media that was repeated in an article in the Lake Okeechobee News, “there was no sign that we were sold out.”
She claimed appointments must be made in person so they can check Florida residency documents. “With the Florida residency requirements, we can’t take appointments over the phone. If we did, we would be delaying the vaccinations on site. I can’t risk delaying pod vaccination days.”
On vaccination days, she said even though people have scheduled appointments, some people create more problems by arriving much earlier. “They want to arrive hours early despite what we tell them,” she said.
“If the county is looking for ways to truly support us, please provide us staff,” Collins said. “There are things that we do need help with,” she said. For example, she said, they could use help reviewing Florida residency paperwork.
“My staff are truly working hard. They are truly exhausted,” she said.
“My health department staff have been working tirelessly over the past year, some six to seven days a week to respond to the needs of our community because we care.”
“This is a supply and demand issue,” she said. “We need more vaccine and that is the answer.”
“I have never said your staff doesn’t do a good job,” Commission Chair Terry Burroughs told Collins. “Your staff does a wonderful job and they are dedicated individuals. My issue has been your inflexibility to focus on different ways to make this available for our seniors.
“I got up the other day at 5 a.m. in the morning. My phone is blowing up with photos,” said Burroughs. “I know you are not asking them to be there at 4 a.m. But the process is broken.
“We’ve got people who can’t stand in line. We’ve got to be smart about how we treat people. I don’t think that what we are doing today, we’re not treating the seniors with the respect they deserve,” said Burroughs.
He said other counties are keeping lists. People call in and are put on the list.
“You get 300 (doses of vaccine). You call the first 300 on the list,” he continued. “How do we make it flexible for them so they don’t have to stand out there?
“I have an issue if people are standing out there on the sidewalk or sitting on the sidewalk in chairs, if someone falls and is injured, we are going to be liable,” Burroughs continued.
“I have people in this audience who can not and will not stand in line when you say to come out and get an appointment.
“That is insane,” he said.
“I am asking you in public to sit down and work with the fire chief for a process so that I don’t have people who feel they have to be out there at 4:30 a.m. to get an appointment."
He said the problem is not the health department staff. “They are doing an excellent job,” he said. “They are probably worked to death right now."
When it comes to making the appointments, “we have disadvantaged and disengaged with our seniors,” he said.
Burroughs said the health department needs “flexibility to be open to new ideas and different ways to do things.”
“If other counties do it, I don’t understand why we can’t do it to serve our seniors better,” he said.
“This board is responsible for the health and welfare of this community and what I see today, we are failing it,” said Burroughs.
Burroughs said those who got appointments were happy with the service they received once they had an appointment. “This lady tells me ‘I’m happy because I stood in line five hours because now I’ve got an appointment,’ but I’ve got others whose mothers couldn’t get an appointment because they can’t stand in line.”
“What do we need to do so they can have different ways to make appointments?” asked Commissioner Kelly Owens. “Other counties are doing this. Call in, be put on a waitlist.
“Put a waitlist together, first come, first serve,” she suggested.
“When doses are available, call the waitlist, schedule the appointment, make it clear what they need to bring with them.”
Collins responded she was willing to consider some flexibility so long as they meet state and federal guidelines.
Collins said they need to verify the Florida residency documents before the appointment. She said if they show up and do not have the documentation, they cannot give the shot.
She said it takes time to check the paperwork, especially for anyone who does not have a Florida driver’s license. Checking the documentation on Jan. 26, it took 4.5 hours to make 300 appointments, she said, “and some were turned away because they don’t have documents.”
On vaccination day, they can’t afford delays, Collins said. “Once I draw up those vaccines, I cannot waste them.”
“With 10,000 (people) 65 and up in this community alone,” Collins said. When there are 300 shots available, “somebody has to be 301. Every week you will have 300 who will be happy and the rest will be unhappy.”
“There’s got to be a different way and a better way without our seniors feeling the need to do what they are doing right now,” said Owens.
“The issue about the Florida residency, that’s something with a little thought process we can focus and get this worked out. We’ve got to be flexible and open,” said Burroughs.
“Senior citizens are the main target for the vaccine and a lot of these senior citizens aren’t very tech-savvy,” said Cole Verano.
“My grandma can’t even change her own ringtone. Having people go in is also a problem if the senior citizens can’t stand.
“We have an excellent facility, the ag barn (Okeechobee Agri-Civic center) where plenty of cars can come in,” he continued. “They could bring all their paperwork, drive through, sign up, and be put on the list for an appointment.
“You could do however many people you could do from 8 to 5 or however long they wanted,” he suggested. “Then just call the first 300 people. Then you don’t have people showing up at 4 a.m. waiting to get in line. You call to confirm the appointment, then you administer the vaccine.”
Collins said according to current data, 11.6% of those vaccinated in Okeechobee so far were not residents of Okeechobee County. She said making the appointments in person decreased the number of non-residents making appointments.
She said the county’s positivity rate (percentage of people tested who were positive for COVID-19) for the past two weeks was 15%. It is down from 22% two weeks ago,” she said.
Collins said the health department has reduced testing from five days a week to three days a week because of the shift to vaccinations.
She said currently 20 Okeechobee residents are hospitalized due to COVID-10. All eight of Raulerson Hospital’s ICU beds are in use. “Seven of those eight beds are covid patients.”
To date, Okeechobee County has had 58 COVID-19 related deaths.
“I was just in the hospital for a week with covid and I can tell you it is no joke,” said Commissioner Brad Goodbread. “I watched the people, the nurses and doctors what they go through to change to go to each room to make sure it is not spread.
“The eight beds in the ICU, seven of them are covid. The other one is my mother. I know what they go through to make sure she is not getting covid and she’s the only person in the ICU that doesn’t have covid,” he added.