Health Department confronts challenges of mass vaccine distribution

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CLEWISTON - With just 500 vaccines received per week, and an overwhelming tidal wave of demand to receive them, the Hendry County Health Department was overloaded by demand for COVID-19 vaccines. From the phone lines crashing and out of county residents making their vaccine appointments in Hendry County, and a low initial number of vaccines received from the state, the mass vaccine distribution presented many challenges.

During the Hendry Board of County Commissioners regular meeting on Jan. 12, Dr. Joseph Pepe reported that COVID-19 testing is still an ongoing priority, but the main topic of concern has been vaccination distribution. Dr. Pepe serves as the Administrator at the Florida Department of Health in Hendry County. He explained the Hendry County Health Department has received a total of 1,000 COVID-19 vaccines over the past two weeks, which were all distributed immediately.

One of several challenges presented during this initial, introductory phase of COVID-19 vaccine distribution, was the appointment system. It was quickly discovered, when a certain number of calls flooded the center at one time the phone lines completely shut down. In the future, they plan to remedy the problem with establishing a call center.

Another issue that has been complicating distribution, is the issue of the vaccines being given to out-of-county residents. The vaccines come through a federal program that doesn’t allow for any residential restrictions.

“Are you giving shots to people from the other coast?” asked Commissioner Karson Turner.

“We have seen all of the above,” replied Dr. Pepe. “Because it’s a federal program, and we are precluded from not giving a vaccine to anyone who gets an appointment with us.”

Dr. Pepe further explained even though the situation has been frustrating for him and his staff, he expects that as more vaccines get distributed throughout the state, the panic to receive vaccines will decrease. Therefore as the state distributes more vaccines, and as more versions of the vaccines become available, more sites will be able to distribute vaccines and there will be less crossover for non-residents seeking the vaccine into Hendry.

The demand for vaccines was, as suspected, considerably higher than the amount of vaccines on hand, and Dr. Pepe said they have agreed to work with the state to receive assistance with setting up vaccination centers throughout Hendry County. But until higher numbers of vaccines are received, the congestion and frustration will likely continue.

“We are continuing to look at additional ways in order to support access and to open up more and more channels,” Dr. Pepe explained. “The challenge we have right now is we have the multiple distribution points to vaccinate people. We just don’t have enough vaccines for the demand.”

Dr. Pepe went on to say that he and his team are hoping to potentially be able, with support, to the distribution of 3,000 vaccines per week, if the state were to increase the amount allocated to Hendry County.

“That would be a game changer,” he said regarding an increase in their weekly vaccine delivery. He also reported they are looking into increasing hours of operation beyond the traditional hours and including a weekend schedule for distribution, if that increase occurs.

Dr. Pepe assured the BOCC his team is working on streamlining the appointment and waiting list process, establishing call centers, and awaiting more vaccines, he stated that their number one focus was making sure all vaccines were given to people as expeditiously as possible.

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