A man gets the coronavirus vaccine shot at an outdoor vaccination site at Lakewood Ranch in Bradenton, Florida. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

Changes in the way vaccines are distributed in Florida, and in how residents can sign up to get them, have left some rural health care providers frustrated.

In the waning days of 2020, Florida was sending vaccines to Federally Qualified Health Centers and hospitals to help with distribution. But recently, a change in state policy meant that vaccines from the state allotment were only going to county health departments. Hospitals were only able to give vaccines to the extremely medically vulnerable. 

While big box stores like Publix, headquartered in Florida, Winn Dixie and Walmart have been authorized at the federal level for vaccine distribution, the shift to sending vaccines to health departments means a slow-down in how those vaccines are getting into the arms of rural residents. 

The shift, said Melissa Thibodeau, executive director at Heartland Rural Health Network, one of nine rural health networks across the state, means that the rural interior communities in Florida are being overlooked by the state. Those areas need to get more vaccines and have hospitals and FQHC’s authorized to help with the rural vaccine roll out, she said. 

In rural DeSoto County, DeSoto Memorial Hospital was doing about 300 doses per day, said Vince Sica, the hospital’s CEO. 

In late December, the hospital received 400 doses of the vaccine, and about a week later, they received another 910 doses. The hospital did 300 doses a day for people in their community over 65, as well as staff members, delivering a little over 1,300 doses in total. 

Then, the state policy changed and the majority of doses started going to the Florida Department of Health – DeSoto. The health department gets 250 doses a week, he said. On Tuesdays, they vaccinate about 250 first doses and on Thursdays, vaccine another 250 residents with their second doses. 

“The last demographics I saw was that there are 6,800 residents over 65 in DeSoto County,” Sica said. “At that rate, it will take the health department 32 weeks to vaccinate that population.”

According to Florida’s Vaccine Finder, there are three places for the 38,000 DeSoto County residents to get a vaccine – Publix, Walmart and the Turner Agri-Civic Center. 

Extremely medically fragile individuals can still get a vaccine at the hospital, Sica said. 

And according to the state’s vaccination roll out plan, FQHC’s will be used in the second stage of the roll out, to provide vaccines for children and adults. 

Ann Claussen, CEO of Central Florida Health Care, an FQHC serving Polk, Hardee and Highlands counties, said prior to the change her facility had been able to vaccinate 2,700 people. But since the change, her facility hasn’t received any vaccine.  

And her facility didn’t make the cut when it came to the roll out of the vaccine. 

“I think we’re just saying that people are open to having it done and as long as we are all collaborating together and working together to provide more options at different locations, more people can get it done,” Claussen said. “People are open to it and having it done and they’re hopeful. But they’re waiting, impatiently probably, on the waitlist to get it done.”

Not using the FQHC means not taking advantage of the people and equipment they bring to the table, Thibodeau said. 

“One thing that I’m hearing from patients and the community in general is with Central Florida Health Care, they have mobile medical units that they could take out and do community (vaccination) events,” Thibodeau said. “That would make it easier to reach the minority populations, especially the Hispanic population and the migrant workers. Also, Central Florida Health Care has extended hours to specifically serve those communities. Having FQHCs on board would help bridge that gap.” 

Another frustration, the group said, is the move to have all registrations for the vaccine online. With access to internet and broadband limited in rural areas, and with an older population, signing up for the vaccine digitally can prove challenging. One vaccination event in DeSoto County, at the Turner Agri-Civic Center in January allowed residents to call in to make appointments, but required those getting a vaccine to download a consent form from the state. 

According to myvaccine.fl.gov, there is a phone number in each county that those without internet access can call to schedule an appointment. 

While vaccine hesitancy amongst minority populations continues to be an issue, Sica said, elsewhere, residents are eager to get the vaccine. 

“I’m surprised at how willing people are to get the vaccine. Like I said, I’ve never seen people that are more excited about getting a shot,” he said. “Now I think it’s just a matter of increasing the number of doses that are coming into the state, which I think you know, goes back to Washington.” 

Currently, Florida receives 300,000 doses of the vaccine each week. No doses of the vaccine were delivered to the state last week because of the weather.