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Seniors In Florida Camp Overnight To Get Vaccine

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Although health officials have been anticipating a COVID-19 vaccine for a while, some places still seemed unprepared when the doses arrived. In some parts of Florida, elderly vaccination hopefuls waited in long lines, with some people even camping out overnight in lawn chairs. From member station WGCU in Fort Myers, Fla., Julie Glenn has this report.

JULIE GLENN, BYLINE: Linda Behan is a 75-year-old woman with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. So when she heard from friends they were going to get a COVID vaccine shot, she joined their caravan - no carpool for them.

LINDA BEHAN: We're just all skittish, you know, because we're old, and we're vulnerable.

GLENN: Most of the information she's gotten has come from friends, and she'd heard the lines were long.

BEHAN: Oh, yeah. We brought chairs. We brought food. I mean, we knew it was going to be a wait.

GLENN: It was a seven-hour wait for Linda, who showed up two hours before vaccinations were scheduled to begin. She was No. 572 in line. Lee County is one of 67 counties in Florida, each with its own system for vaccinating as many people as possible, in spite of the Florida Department of Health having offices in each county. In Lee County, there are no reservations - just first come, first serve. So elderly people lined up for hours, some camping out overnight, which led to a public outcry, putting county manager Roger Desjarlais on defense.

ROGER DESJARLAIS: You know, I got a lot of hate mail in the last couple days. Yeah, I don't think I've ever been called incompetent so many times in - you know, in a string of emails ever in my career.

GLENN: While the program is administered by the Florida Department of Health, DOH officials in Lee County decided late last week to tap the county for additional logistical support. Desjarlais says he first got involved Saturday.

DESJARLAIS: That's when we really got to work in earnest. I'm standing this thing up. So now what?

GLENN: With no appointment system in place, seniors started planning where to pitch their tents.

DESJARLAIS: We've told people, don't camp out, don't stand in line. But, you know, we're also not going to arrest people for doing it. I mean, it's their choice. They can do that if they so choose.

GLENN: Desjarlais says Internet-based appointment systems have too many technical issues.

DESJARLAIS: Every county that's done it so far, their website crashes.

GLENN: Neighboring Collier and Charlotte counties have not reported problems with their reservation systems. Linda Behan says she feels like requiring online reservations could put some at a disadvantage.

BEHAN: It's more fair to do it this way because you don't have to have a computer or whatever. But people who don't have one could go to the library and whatever. But, you know, you didn't have to be a person that had enough money to have a computer to go there.

GLENN: To have reservations or just an open call to seniors to show up for a shot is one of many things that's been left up to individual counties. And little additional information seems to be flowing from the state.

DESJARLAIS: Our information on the supply chain is so limited, I can't even - it's hard to describe. And we are absolutely in the dark.

GLENN: The supply chain begins at the federal level, which distributes the vaccine to states. The Florida Department of Health drafted its COVID vaccination plan back in October. It called for first responders and health care workers to receive their inoculation along with long-term care residents and employees. But a December 23 executive order by Governor Ron DeSantis added all people 65 and older to that first group, throwing a last-minute curveball to counties operating on the original priority list.

After the long lines in the first week of its vaccine rollout, Desjarlais says the county is working on a reservation system to launch possibly sometime next week. And after seven hours in line for her first shot, Linda Behan says that she hopes the lines won't be so long for her follow-up shot in 28 days.

For NPR News, I'm Julie Glenn in Fort Myers, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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