PINELLAS COUNTY, FL — Staff of the Florida Department of Health-Pinellas County are being inundated with complaints from senior citizens attempting to register for coronavirus vaccines Monday.
The county opened its registration system for the vaccines at noon Monday, intending to begin vaccinating residents 65 and older on Tuesday.
However, residents say it's impossible to register on the county's health department site or by phone. More than 400 residents posted commented on the DOH's Facebook page complaining about spending hours trying to make an appointment only to be cut off.
Department of Health-Pinellas Public Information Office Tom Iovino issued a news release acknowledging the problems with the registration system.
"We are aware of the issues occurring with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County's COVID-19 vaccine registration system and our phone network," he said. "We understood that there would be an enthusiastic response, and we are working to promptly resolve the issues."
He assured residents who are unable to register for vaccinations this week that there will be many more opportunities to get the vaccine.
"We are in the early phases of the vaccination program, and there will be more opportunities for vaccinations in the coming weeks and months," he said. "We appreciate your patience and understanding."
However, residents say they're feeling anything but patient and understanding. In a barrage of comments on social media, residents complained about the inadequacy of the registration system and the county's failure to plan for the numbers of seniors wanting to be vaccinated.
"Who are the magical unicorns who were even able to access this site to make an appointment?" asked Christie Hill O'Sullivan. "I couldn't even make it past the first page trying to help my parents. Glad our county is able to handle volume in a crisis. Well done."
"It took me three hours of constant trying before I got through," said Naomi Neilson Vichich. "Of course, all appointments were gone by then."
"The process is not an appropriate way to register this many people," said Andrea Sachs Deutsch. "You at the health department need some guidance on how to manage this. You have an entire county to vaccinate. Improve the process now. Registering 125,000 people at one time is not the way to do it."
Lisa Shields compared attempts to get a coveted vaccine appointment to the dystopian film "The Hunger Games."
"It's incredibly frustrating knowing my 86-year-old grandpa who lives in Pinellas can't get through on the phone or internet. His grandkids and daughter are all trying to get through for him."
Over the weekend, the DOH-Pinellas announced that, due to the limited supply of vaccines arriving in the county and the need to distribute these to those 65 and older first, the most orderly method was to use a registration process. Residents were given the option of calling a phone number or registering online. However, the DOH cautioned that either option will inevitably have a wait time.
If that's what the DOH expected, resident Gregg Fata said a public health agency should never have been given the responsibility of handling the mass registration. He said private companies such as CVS and Walgreens and primary care doctors are better equipped to handle the volume of requests.
For those who were able to get registered, the vaccines will be administered at the Department of Health-Pinellas offices. Residents are encouraged to download and fill out the consent form from the DOH website and bring it with them to avoid a wait.
Those able to register must also bring a form of identification with their birth date indicating that they are 65 or older and agree to be in Pinellas County to receive their second dose of the vaccine in 21 days. Those who are unable may be excluded from getting the vaccine.
After receiving the vaccine, residents will be asked to wait for 15 minutes be monitored for potential adverse effects.
Vaccinations will take place at:
Clearwater Health Center, 310 N. Myrtle Ave. in Clearwater
Mid-County Health Center, 8175 Ulmerton Road in Largo
St. Petersburg Health Center, 205 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. St. N. in St. Petersburg
After being selected as part of the pilot program to provide vaccines to skilled nursing facilities two weeks ago, Pinellas County has now provided the Pfizer vaccines to 68 facilities, immunizing 6,700 staff and residents.
Additionally, the county has provided vaccines to emergency medical service, fire rescue and other health care personnel for a total of 12,300 people to date.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.4 percent of the county's 974,996 residents are 65 or older. That means Pinellas County has 247,648 people 65 or older awaiting the vaccine.
Until they're able to get the vaccine, the DOH is telling residents, especially seniors and residents with pre-existing medical conditions, to continue wearing masks, social distancing and staying away from crowds.
Residents Lisa Shields found the news disheartening.
"I'm really hoping that as more vaccines become available and more manufacturers approved, there will be more sites and availability. As of now, the process is horrible. I am not 65+ so I have a while to wait and, if this is any indication and things don't improve, it will be the fall or longer for the 16-64-year-olds."
Like many seniors who don't meet the age 65 threshold, Shields wonders if it will be too late for her by the time the state gets around to vaccinating younger seniors.
"I haven't seen my mom, sister or her family in over a year," she said. "I haven't seen my kids in almost a year, and it's not looking like that will change anytime soon. Horrible."