OKEECHOBEE – On Thursday morning, those who called the health department phone number in Okeechobee once again connected with a phone message that all COVID-19 vaccination appointments were full. The health department will not start making appointments again until they receive more vaccine.
In late December, Raulerson Hospital received a shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine and began vaccinating health professionals there. Florida Community Health Centers (FCHC) received 300 doses to vaccinate staff and patients over age 65. So far Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County has received 1,000 doses of the vaccine. In the first phase of vaccinations, the health department vaccinated first responders and health care professionals who were not affiliated with the hospital or FCHC. On Jan. 4, the health department began making appointments to vaccinate those ages 65 and over. The appointments filled up quickly and residents were advised to call back on Thursday.
Mitch Smeykal of the Okeechobee Emergency Operations Center said the vaccinations at the health department are going smoothly, for those lucky enough to secure an appointment. He said the problem is they can’t schedule appointments until they have the vaccine. It’s a huge planning problem, he said. “We have no visibility more than seven days out.” He said they just aren’t getting enough information from the federal government about when doses of the vaccine will arrive.
People who have tried to make appointments by phone continue to complain about busy signals and the phone system cutting them off. Smeykal said they have eight people manning the phones when they are taking appointments, which go quickly. Some people camped out in front of the Okeechobee Health Department on Wednesday night hoping to be able to make vaccination appointments in person when the health department opened up on Thursday morning.
About 25% of those who successfully made vaccination appointments in Okeechobee County did not have Okeechobee addresses. Smeykal explained because the vaccine is free and provided by the federal government, they cannot limit appointments to county residents.
Distribution of the vaccines started four weeks ago in Florida, Smeykal said. Demand has greatly exceeded supply.
• The first week, Florida received 180,000 doses.
• The second week, Florida received 495,000 doses.
• The third week, Florida received 289,000 doses.
• The fourth week, Florida received 240,000 doses.
Smeykal said with only 240,000 doses coming for the whole state, Okeechobee County will be lucky to get another 500 doses next week. With more than 10,000 residents over the age of 65, at that rate it could take a year just to get those over age 65 vaccinated.
He said he expects the process to smooth out in a few months. At some point there will be more vaccine available than people who want the shots, he explained. For now, residents over age 65 who wish to be vaccinated can keep calling the health department.
The health department phone number is 863-462-5800. The location of the health department is 1728 N.W. Ninth Ave., Okeechobee, 34972.
More information about vaccination availability will be posted as it becomes available.