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Florida: Where Vaccine Distribution Is Gamified, Everyone Is Confused, and We All Must Compete

People stand in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Miami Dade College North Campus on March 10.
People stand in line to receive a COVID-19 vaccine at the Miami Dade College North Campus on March 10.
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Ever since mid-December, when the first U.S. healthcare workers began to get vaccinated, many of us have been wondering: When will it be my turn?

In Florida, there has been no clear answer for most. As recently as two weeks ago, Florida was the only state that hadn't clearly articulated which residents would be prioritized next for the COVID vaccine.

As of today, those eligible under the state's official guidelines include people older than 60, school employees over 50, police over 50, firefighters over 50, healthcare workers, and medically vulnerable residents who are able to provide a doctor's note.

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden said he would direct the states to lift their age restrictions for the vaccine by May 1. That same day, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said he might do so by April 1.

But in the interim, confusion has abounded as Florida's patchwork of state, federal, and pharmacy vaccination sites enforce different eligibility requirements. After DeSantis declared that only school employees over the age of 50 could get a shot, for example, the pharmacy chain CVS disregarded his guidance, announcing it would vaccinate school employees of any age.

Earlier this month, a federal vaccination site in Florida City was swarmed after word got out that it was inoculating anyone older than 18. Some people younger than 65 were also able to get vaccinated at a site in Overtown. And last week, a site at Miami Dade College's North Campus drew long lines after news spread that healthy young people were being accepted.

Miami journalists reported sheer bedlam at walk-up and drive-up vaccination sites, where most people appeared confused about whether they could get a shot.

Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown tweeted that it took her more than six hours to get through the line at Miami Dade College with two women older than 65 who wanted the vaccine. She noted seeing many young people who did not seem to fit the official state criteria for eligibility.

Sun Sentinel reporter Mario Ariza live-tweeted his efforts to get a vaccine on his day off "while being completely truthful" about the fact that he doesn't have a high-risk medical condition. He ended up at the same Miami Dade College site. After being told by a cop, "You might get lucky," he and others were eventually turned away and told that "fake news" was responsible for sending the message that they might be able to get vaccinated.

By the next day, the site was Miami's worst-kept secret. CBS Miami reporter Brooke Shafer tweeted that people began lining up at 10 p.m. — nine hours before the site opened at 7 the next morning. Citing "excessive" traffic in the area, the Miami-Dade Police Department issued a press release essentially asking everyone to calm down.

"No overnight parking/staging on surrounding roadways or camping on sidewalks will be permitted, as this poses a traffic hazard and creates a public safety concern," the police department asserted.

The Miami Dade College site, and some others, seemingly reverted to DeSantis' official eligibility guidelines after the ruckus, although Local 10 reports that "adherence to the state's eligibility criteria appears to change depending on the demand."

That lack of clarity has created an ultra-competitive environment for vaccine seekers in Miami and across Florida. People continue to flock to the sites in the early hours of the morning, as if waiting for exclusive concert tickets or a sneaker drop. Crowded close together in line, they've waited in the rain for hours at sites where access to water is lacking and the only available restrooms are porta-potties.

Floridians trying to make an appointment online haven't fared much better. Slots at CVS and Publix are notoriously hard to book, and Miami's Jackson Memorial Hospital has made a habit of announcing new appointments just a few minutes before they go live on its website. The competition for Jackson appointments is even higher now that the hospital is not requiring documentation for those who attest that their doctor has recommended they get the vaccine because of a high-risk medical condition. (That, too, is a departure from DeSantis' requirement that people present a doctor's note, a move that was criticized as exclusionary and overly burdensome.)

Starting today, residents older than 60 will be able to get vaccinated, regardless of medical history or job title.  DeSantis has said those 55 and up will be on the list "relatively soon" (or, from another interview, "in due time"). But many Floridians are calling on the governor to expand eligibility, saying the existing requirements are bottlenecking the system and sowing chaos.

Jared Moskowitz, the Florida Division of Emergency Management director who serves under DeSantis, seems to agree with that approach. Last week, Miami Herald reporter Ben Conarck pointed out that Moskowitz had liked a tweet saying DeSantis should "open up the damn availability" while chastising the governor for "restricting demand." (When another journalist asked why Moskowitz liked the tweet, Moskowitz replied with an emoji of a shrugging boy.)

As of the end of last week, more than 4 million Floridians have gotten at least one dose of the COVID vaccine. That includes more than 2.2 million people who are fully inoculated.

If you're still confused about whether and when you might be able to join that group, you can look to the team at the Miami Herald for guidance. Last week, the Herald rolled out a COVID vaccine tip line to provide accurate information to folks with questions. Text COVID UPDATES to 786-386-2012 to sign up for alerts or to ask a question, and a journalist will get back to you with answers.

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