Seniors spend night in parking lot to secure COVID-19 vaccination appointments

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OKEECHOBEE — Hundreds of senior citizens, some of them in wheel chairs, camped out in the parking lot of the health department building in Okeechobee on Monday night hoping to secure an appointment for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Comments shared on social media by family members of those in line stated some people got in line at 11 p.m. Others joined the queue throughout the night and early morning hours.

The Florida Department of Health (DOH) in Okeechobee County received 800 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Jan. 22. Five hundred of the doses were set aside for those who were vaccinated four weeks ago and need their second dose to complete the series. Three hundred doses were available for first shot appointments. According to the notice on the Okeechobee County website, appointments could be made starting at 8 a.m. on Tuesday.

Previously, health department officials had stated appointments could be made by phone or in person. Tuesday morning, the recorded announcement on the health department phone line stated appointments were only available in person.

Okeechobee County Commission Chair Terry Burroughs said what happened Monday night was “insane” and could have been avoided. He said the county has offered to set up the Emergency Operations Center phone banks to handle the appointments and they were told by Tiffany Collins, DOH Okeechobee executive director, the EOC phones were not needed. Burroughs said the EOC phone banks, manned by volunteers, handle thousands of calls during hurricanes and would be better equipped to handle the volume than the DOH phone system.

Burroughs said it is ridiculous that members of the county’s elderly population had to sit in a parking lot most of the night just to get a chance to make an appointment for a vaccine against a life-threatening virus. It is also unacceptable that those who were not physically able to travel to the health department and wait there for hours had no way to make a vaccination appointment, he added.

He said Collins has been totally uncooperative with county officials.

Burroughs said county officials are also concerned about the shortage of vaccine doses for the rural counties.

The COVID-19 vaccination plan will be on the agenda for the Jan. 28 meeting of the Okeechobee County Commissioners and Burroughs invites the public to voice their concerns. The meeting starts at 9 a.m. in the Historic Okeechobee County Courthouse, 304 N.W. Second Street. It can be viewed live online at https://www.co.okeechobee.fl.us/. Those who wish to email public comments should do so no later than 1 p.m. on Wednesday (the day before the meeting) to publiccomment@co.okeechobee.fl.us. Those without internet access can comment by phone to 863-467-7249.

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