Writer : Catie Schwartzman
2 min read March 2021 — While COVID-19 vaccine eligibility expanded this week, wide distribution has created great challenges.
Between Feb. 26 and March 1, Gov. Ron DeSantis widened the pool of people eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine to people under 65 with pre-existing conditions that make them “extremely vulnerable” to the disease, as well as teachers, firefighters and police 50 years old and up. This made many more people eligible for the vaccine but also created ambiguity for doctors, pharmacies and health officials alike.
DeSantis said a filled-out doctor’s approval form would be necessary to prove vulnerability but Publix reported Monday that no documentation would be required for those falling into the category of under 65 years old with morbidities. While relying on a patient’s word is already a risk amid the intense demand for COVID-19 vaccines, the idea of a “doctor’s note” also poses the issue of doctors oversigning. In fact, DeSantis did not list any criteria that constitutes a “severe illness.”
“What I am afraid of is that the physician is just going to write that the patient is at high risk,” said Dr. Alina Alonso, director of the Florida Department of Health’s Palm Beach County office, at a public forum Monday. “If that happens without verification of those exact conditions, everyone is going to get a note from the doctor and it’s going to be a mess.”
Vaccines are accessible in Palm Beach County by appointment or pre-registration only, for walk-in or drive-through. Eligible candidates may make appointments at healthcare facilities like Health Care District of Palm Beach; at grocery stores and pharmacies like Publix; and at communal spaces like the Burns Road Community Center and South Florida Fairgrounds. In addition to these options, the Fire Rescue is available, and federal vaccine sites will open this week.
The South Florida Fairgrounds is one of Palm Beach’s newest mass vaccination sites, added within the past two weeks. There has been a larger push for expansion and diversification of vaccine sites in Palm Beach County, which has struggled with vaccinating its Black and Hispanic citizens. According to the Sun Sentinel, “Of the over 261,000 people who have received at least one vaccine dose, just 4% percent are Black and 4.5% are Hispanic.” Many are calling for more attention to vaccinating vulnerable communities in Florida, citing that Florida has not actively worked to assist them. For example, Florida’s partnership with Publix for COVID-19 vaccine distribution leaves many neighborhoods without a Publix in a vaccine desert zone.
The tedious journey from registering among limited slots to attending the vaccine site can be particularly daunting for the older population, who are also the most vulnerable to the virus and most in need of the vaccine. Equity of vaccines has already been a significant issue throughout the rollout. To equalize the distribution, mobile on-the-go vaccinations units are dispersing within Palm Beach County to elderly communities.
Among the 12 independent living facilities and apartment complexes to receive units over the next two weeks are Glades Pioneer Terrace in Belle Glade, Shirley H. Gould House and Weinberg House in West Boca, Groves of Delray and Delray Housing Authority in Delray Beach, Lake Worth Towers in Lake Worth Beach and several West Palm Beach complexes. Considering Belle Glade has over 30% of its residents in poverty and no Publix pharmacy in the near vicinity, these units could be game changing in the resolution of vaccine equity.
Even these efforts have produced more uncertainty: how many doses will be administered at each complex has not been confirmed.
Practical COVID-19 vaccine distribution has inevitably produced new questions. However, the Palm Beach County community hopes it will solve more problems than it creates.
Photo Credit: Governor Ron DeSantis’ Facebook