OKEECHOBEE – Okeechobee County had 500 first shots of the Moderna vaccine available to give out at the vaccination pod scheduled for Tuesday, March 23 at the Okeechobee Agri-Civic Center. There were 4,400 people on the waitlist for Okeechobee County, but the state Sharecare appointment system only booked 85 appointments, leaving county officials scrambling.
The vaccination pod was still a success thanks to a team effort by the public safety department, the health department, the Lake Okeechobee News and WOKC radio to get more people to the vaccination site, Public Safety Officer Ralph Franklin explained at the March 25 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commissioners.
After being notified of the problem on Tuesday morning, the Lake Okeechobee News used the new “digital daily” version of the newspaper on the SouthCentralFloridaLife.com website, and the Lake Okeechobee News Facebook page – which has more than 21,000 followers – to share the news about available vaccine and to provide continued updates throughout the day about how many shots were still available and how long the wait was for those without appointments.
The vaccination pod, which opened at 8:30 a.m., finished at 3:30 p.m. on March 23.
“The problem with the appointment system is there are two different companies running it,” said Mitch Smeykal of the Okeechobee Emergency Operations Center. “Apparently ShareCare couldn’t handle it and they brought in Tidal Basin.”
Sharecare gets the data. Tidal Basin handles the appointments, he explained.
Smeykal said until last week, county officials did not have access to the waitlist. On Friday, they learned there were 4,400 names on the list for Okeechobee County.
When only 85 shots had been scheduled for March 23, “needless to say, we were not happy,” he added.
Smeykal said it’s too late to make changes for the March 30 vaccination pod – which should also have 500 doses available. “The next one coming up, if we only have 85 or 95 scheduled, we will do the same as we did this week,” he said. If they again have a problem with not enough appointments scheduled, they will once again use the Lake Okeechobee News and the radio station, along with the county’s social media pages, to spread the word about the options for vaccinations.
For the following week, the county will start making the appointments, calling those already on waitlist, Smeykal said.
“We’re going to take the list that we get from Sharecare, and try to make contact with those people ourselves.” He said other counties are having the same problem with the Sharecare/Tidal Basin system.
If you’re on the waitlist, there’s one thing you can do to help yourself: Answer your phone.
“One thing in the state’s defense is they have 80% refusal of the phone calls,” he said. When the call comes in as an unknown number, many people think it is a spam call and don’t answer, he explained. “They say they call people 99 times and they don’t answer.”
Those who sign up on the state website can select the way they want to be contacted for an appointment, he explained. If they don’t want to answer an “unknown caller,” they can select to receive a text or email instead of a phone call.
“Is there a number we can give out so people will know it is not a spam call?” asked Commission Chairman Terry Burroughs.
Smeykal said they have asked the state to set it up so the call is identified as coming from Sharecare, State of Florida “or something that lets them know it is a state call.”
Commissioner Kelly Owens asked if those who are already on the waitlist can change how they are notified. Unfortunately not, according to Smeykal. The only option would be to sign up again, which would delete the original application and put the person lower on the waitlist.
Franklin said other vaccination efforts continue. A Veterans Administration pod at Indian River State College’s Dixon Hendry Center vaccinated 179 veterans. The VA has also announced they will start vaccinating the spouses of veterans who are eligible for VA services.
Bret Smith, of the Florida Department of Health in Okeechobee County, said so far 11,147 people have vaccinated in Okeechobee County. He said they held a vaccination pod for teachers last Saturday and also held a pod in Douglas Park. They plan to run a vaccination pod at Sacred Heart Catholic Church on Sunday after services.
He said they are working on a program to vaccinate those who are homebound, using the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which only requires one dose.
The vaccine is working, said Smith. Okeechobee County had just three COVID-19 positive cases in persons over the age of 65 in the past two weeks. However, the county had 31 positive cases in persons age 24 to 35 in that time frame.
Across the state, because of spring break, they expect to see more covid-positive cases in the college age demographic.
“I am hearing a lot of people 65 and over who have been vaccinated feel like that is a green card to not practice any other precautionary behaviors,” said Owens.
“Everybody should still be maintaining the 6 feet and they should still be wearing masks,” said Smith. Until enough people have been vaccinated to control the spread of the virus, everyone should still follow the precautions, he said. Those who have been vaccinated could still contract the virus – even though they might not have any symptoms – and spread it to others. Wearing a mask and social distancing is important to protect those who have not yet been vaccinated.
Smith said Florida has administered 8.6 million shots statewide and almost 3 million people have completed the series of two shots.
Starting April 5, anyone over age 40 can get the shot, Franklin explained.
Burroughs complimented Smith on the job the health department has done since he took over as acting director. He said he has gotten a lot of good feedback about him from community members. “Staff has reacted to your management style and your leadership style very well,” said Burroughs.
“It’s a very good team,” said Smith.
He has applied for the permanent position in Okeechobee. “Even though I come down from Osceola County, I feel like Okeechobee is my home now,” he said.
Smith said once they straighten out the problem with the appointment system, he hopes to increase vaccinations in Okeechobee County.