Unlike the rich donors Gov. DeSantis vaccinated first, I had to hustle for my vaccine | Opinion

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Fabiola Santiago
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Update: On Friday, FEMA responded by reversing the rules, saying its Miami Dade College North vaccination site won’t be turning away at-risk people under 65 who don’t have the medical form required by the state, but do have a doctor’s note.

This time, I told myself, I’m turning my outrage into action.

If Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis can dispense the first COVID-19 vaccines to his wealthy donors at the Ocean Reef Club in the Keys, if he can continue to use the deadly virus as a political fund-raising tool at whim, I’m getting the shot in the arm I deserve under new eligibility guidelines.

No more waiting, thanks to the under 65 “extreme vulnerability” category — and the new FEMA site opened by President Joe Biden in Northwest Miami-Dade.

Armed with a two-page letter from my doctor outlining a qualifying condition that made me more vulnerable to COVID-19 complications, I drove to the newly opened walk-up FEMA vaccination site at the Miami Dade College North campus.

It’s a massive life-saving effort staffed by competent young U.S. Army soldiers, civilians and local police.

“Not necessary” and “a big mistake,” DeSantis called the FEMA sites after Biden announced he was opening them in major cities in Florida and other hard-hit states.

FEMA camps” the governor mocked them.

Thank you, Mr. President, I kept thinking as I navigated my way to the coveted vaccine.

Thank you for the large-scale supply now available to Black and brown communities, and especially, to the people of Hialeah who didn’t vote for you. Thank you for not holding a partisan grudge like your predecessor and his Florida mini-me.

But I digress.

This is a story about a positive milestone in a year of losses and outrages like vaccines the virus epicenter of Miami deserved instead going to donors in a place with one of the lowest rates of COVID in the state.

Wealthy Keys enclave received COVID vaccines in January before much of the state

No fear, only bureaucracy

But here we are, finally my turn, I didn’t feel an ounce of “vaccine alarmism,” fears of harmful consequences that don’t hold up if you follow and trust the science. I do.

I felt giddy, hopeful, ready to do my part to send COVID packing.

I had been encouraged to come by the tweet of a younger colleague with the same condition. She got her shot here on opening day Wednesday. And also by another colleague I ran into at the FEMA parking lot. He got his vaccine here, too, and urged: “Go for it, it’s easy!”

My only internal debate was whether to choose the two-shot Pfizer (95 percent effective in preventing COVID-19) or the lesser-rated but also highly effective one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Both are being offered here.

Ha. That turned out to be the least of my concerns.

While the wealthy in Florida were served their shots on a silver platter, while a Manatee County commissioner added her name to the VIP list of a DeSantis pop-up site at another posh community, I had to hustle for my vaccine.

It was a mission to be cleared at check-in — all because of the formality of a piece of paper that, after I finally submitted it, nobody closely scrutinized.

Two workers at check-in refused the doctor’s letter I had just picked up across town. They wanted the same information, but typed into a newly uploaded form, COVID-19 Determination of Extreme Vulnerability, from the Florida Department of Health.

Was this necessary because the FDH form was going to be recorded or tracked?

No.

Was this necessary because they didn’t believe me?

No.

“The state requires it,” one of the workers said.

My doctor even spoke to the check-in person from my cellphone. She explained that she was out of town and it wouldn’t be easy for her to download, create a PDF, and fill out and sign a form.

No one would budge, even though they had let in the day before people much younger than me with a doctor’s note they didn’t even look at.

“No wonder we’re lagging behind in this country. They make it so difficult!” my doctor said.

She’s right.

It shouldn’t have been a mission for me to be allowed in when the crowds were light at a site capable of handling twice or three times as many people.

We shouldn’t be turning down people with preexisting conditions who are only a few years from 65 when we live in the epicenter of a state with a known total of 1,924,114 coronavirus cases and 31,829 deaths, as of this writing. Statistics that will add more victims tomorrow, and the next day, and the day after that, too.

Luckily, my beloved doctor wasn’t going to abandon me when there are mutating variants of the virus circulating — and she dropped everything to make sure I had in hand the properly filled-out form.

No pain, all gain

Once in, getting vaccinated was a breeze.

I didn’t have to choose a vaccine after all. They only had Pfizer left — and I don’t mind coming back for the second dose.

I could feel the same sense of relief in the older man who walked on crutches and the chatty group of young teachers. I could perceive smiles behind the masks, all so deserving of the vaccine.

The young Army soldiers administering the vaccines were efficient and pleasant.

“Who’s going to be my photographer?” I asked when it was my turn.

It wasn’t part of the protocol, but what the heck, they indulged me.

They warmed up to me when I told them the COVID vaccine was joining the one I got on my left arm the day I left Cuba at age 10.

“The smallpox,” the soldier said. “I got one, too.”

“Mine is huge as you can see — and hurt a lot,” I said. “They were angry that we were leaving the country, and the nurse plunged and twisted the needle harshly in my arm,” I said.

“This won’t hurt,” he promised and, before I registered the pinch, it was over.

It didn’t hurt at all — and I’m feeling fine, grateful to have been vaccinated at MDC, a community treasure that, in the darkness of COVID, is providing the light.