Monica Sierra, 76, and her husband Carlos Nieves, 88, residents of Kissimmee in Osceola County, were able to get vaccinated earlier this week as part of Orlando Health’s vaccine expansion plan.
“I called very early and it’s like a miracle from God. It was an angel who finally took care of me and told me that they had a spot in St. Cloud. And I went with my husband, we did not wait long, they gave us the vaccine and we were back home,“ Sierra recalled. The experience of being able to be among the first rounds of vaccinations in Central Florida represents “a relief,” she confessed.
“It makes us feel calmer. I had a lot of anguish in all these months with this dangerous virus,” she said.
Florida Gov. Ron De Santis said vaccinating people 65 and older is a priority, but in counties like Osceola and Orange, the registry for available vaccines closed because of high demand and many adults are waiting to know when the next opportunity is. However, vaccination sites such as Publix centers and local hospitals have expanded.
The Orange County Health Department is vaccinating about 2,000 people a day at the Convention Center. But the demand for vaccination was so high over the weekend that they were forced to shut down the appointment portal. The agency posted a message on its Twitter account promising to make a public announcement when the portal reopens.
Statewide, about 702,681 people have received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, according to the DOH report released Thursday. A total of 72,087 people in Florida have received both doses to be considered fully immunized. Of those who have received at least the first dose, more than 437,000 are over the age of 65.
The rise in infections continues across the state as recently reported cases remain at record levels. The state has seen an increase of more than 10,000 infections each reporting day since Dec. 29.
However, several interviewees by El Sentinel Orlando confessed being doubtful whether they will get the vaccine immediately or not.
This is a concern for local experts. Dr. Raúl Pino, from the Orange County Health Department urged the community to get the vaccine as soon as possible, especially those communities that are at higher risk of contracting the virus.
“We want to increase the presence [in vaccination centers] of our minorities, people of color. Please make an appointment as soon as they are available,” he said. “It is important for people from minority communities to get vaccinated because these populations are more affected by the pandemic and may have a higher death rate than others.”
To achieve herd immunity, which reduces the likelihood of spreading the virus, about 70% of Americans need the vaccines, according to the Mayo Clinic, or about 230 million people nationwide.
Sierra and her husband agree on the importance of vaccination. That is why they had tried to get vaccinated in Osceola County where they were unsuccessful and kept trying until they were vaccinated at Orlando Health.
“We have not gone to almost anything and we have taken care of ourselves to the maximum. It has been difficult, not seeing the family for a while, but we all take care of each other,“ said Sierra, who explained that her husband has a lung condition and she is diabetic.
The couple lives alone and assures that even after the vaccine, “we will continue to take care of ourselves.”
Due to her experience with calls and the long wait for vaccination, Sierra wants authorities to facilitate the registration process for older adults.
“If we are already very anxious, imagine when you wait on the phone line for them to take your information and tell you if there is space or not. It is as if it were a lottery. I think they should make the process easier, not everyone has the internet or they are alone and they don’t understand the registration process,“ she said.
Meanwhile, DeSantis, like local leaders, urges people to be patient and wait.
On the other hand, Wanda Medina, who recently suffered from COVID-19, said emphatically that she will not get the vaccine.
“I don’t think I will get it. I think it is still too early to know if it will have a good result,” Medina said. “I think the vaccine has not yet been well tested and we will be like a guinea pig. I have been very cautious with everything and I still got it.”
Experts recommend that even if you have had coronavirus, you should be vaccinated. Likewise, even after being vaccinated, you should continue to wear masks in public and take the other precautions that health officials have been urging during the pandemic such as social distancing and limiting large group gatherings and closed spaces.
Lucila Zambrano, 74, is not convinced about the vaccine and she said that she is considering it and hoping “that I will spend a few months and see what the effects are like. I want to have more confidence in the vaccine.”
The Puerto Rican moved alone to Kissimmee after Hurricane Maria passed through island. During the months of the pandemic, she has been able to cope with isolation with the support of two friends who live in the same complex as her and with whom she attended Osceola Council on Aging programs.
“I miss our meetings very much. This is very distracting for those of us who live alone. We hope that all this happens and come and meet as before and enjoy that great time together,“ said Zambrano during the Three Kings event held by the council in early January.
Gubelia Santos, a friend of Zambrano, said that even though she suffers from a heart condition, her doctor recommended that she get vaccinated.
At 91, Santos says she misses her encounters at the council with the other older adults with whom she used to play bingo and enjoy social and entertainment programs. She has spent months in isolation to stay healthy and she has stayed home watching movies and wearing her mask at her medical appointments.
The events at the Osceola County on Aging, Santos says, are like “our second family. This helps a lot for those of us who live alone. Here we laugh and cry together.”
This is something Wilda Belisle, Senior Vice President of the council’s Meals on Wheels and Dining Club program acknowledges on a daily basis. Belisle explained the dramatic reality of the elderly during the pandemic when the need to bring meals to the homes of the elderly increased.
“We have had to innovate and the most important thing to let them know that they are not alone. We have been answering their calls, attending to their needs and being a breath in the middle of the pandemic,” Belisle said. “Many live alone. They have no one and this was their place of recreation, of meeting their friends, and we miss them a lot, but we tell them that soon we will be able to see each other.”
The organization is looking for volunteers to fill the hot food delivery routes, since then normal need of 275 meals delivered per day has recently increased to about 525 meals a day.
“They look forward to that meal every day and that visit is sometimes the only one they have,” Belisle said. Those interested can contact her at 407-847-2144.