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Florida vaccine distribution plan leans heavily on local hospitals

Jim Little
Pensacola News Journal

After Gov. Ron DeSantis visited Pensacola to tout the success of local mass vaccination clinics, it's becoming clear the state will largely rely on private medical providers to distribute the vaccine, rather than local health departments.

Escambia County Commissioners on Thursday morning peppered Marie Mott, administrator of the Florida Department of Health in Escambia County, with questions about how the department was going to distribute the vaccine. As the discussion progressed, it became clear that the state was shifting to a strategy of relying on hospitals, rather than local health departments, to get out the vaccine.

"Originally, generally, the plan was, their list of priorities, the vaccine would be funneled down through the health departments and coordinated out from there," Mott told commissioners. "And we're seeing that shift not only to the change in the priorities (to people 65 and up), but also to have vaccines being distributed at the local level, with the adding in of hospitals."

On Wednesday, DeSantis visited Pensacola to highlight a vaccine clinic being conducted by Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital that booked 3,500 vaccinations on Wednesday and Thursday in Milton and Pensacola.

DeSantis:COVID-19 vaccines will be prioritized to communities that can quickly vaccinate

Vaccines:Over 6,700 people vaccinated against COVID-19 in Escambia and Santa Rosa counties

During the press conference, DeSantis said vaccine shipments would be sent out to communities with the ability to distribute the vaccine effectively.

Demand for the vaccine is high and Escambia County commissioners said they are being inundated with calls about how to get the vaccine but have been left largely without any answers to give constituents.

"When we're talking about distribution of the vaccine, that's where the log jam is," District 1 Commissioner Jeff Bergosh said. "And I'm going to be very polite when I say it's been kind of a cluster."

Commissioners said people are upset that the health department number is usually busy or people have to sign up online and hope they hear back. Many of the callers are angry about a lack of clear information about how to get the vaccine.

"They're angry. They're scared. They want somebody to be upset with," District 5 Commissioner Steven Barry said. "And that's back to what y'all were talking about, we're the lowest hanging fruit for that. So that's us. And I don't take the tone of the comments personally, but it's coming from them being afraid. They have less access to information than we should have and it's still difficult for us to ascertain what reality is (with how to get the vaccine)."

Commission Chairman Robert Bender, who attended DeSantis' press conference Wednesday, said his understanding is the state eventually will have a system set up to distribute the vaccine in retail establishments similar to the flu vaccine.

"There's already three counties that are going to Publix," Bender said. "So my understanding is this is the stopgap until we get there."

Barry asked Mott when the state will reach that point.

"That's the $64,000 question," Mott said. "That is the ultimate goal of the plan, even initially, as many times as the plan has changed from the state, the ultimate goal was to get it mainstreamed as quickly as possible."

Mott told commissioners that even she was not receiving information from the state about how many vaccines are being distributed by the Florida Division of Emergency Management.

"Originally, my understanding was everything's funneled into the state health department, and pushed out from there," Mott said. "But it is not happening like that now. So things have changed. And I think it's just like the beginning of this when our understanding of the virus and how it's transmitted and what the risks were changed until we kind of had a better understanding of that."

Escambia County Emergency Manager Eric Gilmore said the state is receiving vaccine allotments from the federal government, and the Florida Division of Emergency Management is deciding where and to whom the vaccines are shipped. 

Gilmore said Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital's vaccine clinics are likely to receive the bulk of vaccines from the state going forward.

"(Sacred Heart has) presented that they can get out in front of this," Gilmore said. "The more we can get out, the more we've been told we will get. So that's why it's a collective effort to get this as a mass push out there."

► COVID vaccine: Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital taking appointments for Monday clinic

► DeSantis on COVID-19: Mandates, lockdowns and fines for violating mask restrictions don’t work

Justin Labrato, chief operating officer at Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital, said they are already working with the Santa Rosa County Health Department to get people on their vaccine waitlist appointments at their clinics and could do the same with Escambia County.

Officials said more than 10,000 people age 65 and up have signed up for the vaccine.

"We can leave 50% of those available appointments for them to go through their list, and the other ones can be open to the public," Labrato said. "We've started that in Santa Rosa County already, we can do the same thing in Escambia County. Just start eating away at that list."

Commissioners are set to vote on using up to $3.5 million to help Ascension Sacred Heart and Community Health of Northwest Florida, which is helping the hospital administer the vaccine, to pay for the $24 cost of giving the vaccine.

The COVID-19 vaccine is free, but medical providers are allowed to charge an administrative fee to cover the cost of giving the vaccine. Under federal law, insurance providers must fully cover the fee, and the county funds are meant to cover the cost for uninsured people. The $3.5 million is coming out of the county's share of its CARES Act funding that will be reimbursed by the state.

Commissioners wanted to open up the reimbursement program to all three major hospitals rather than just Ascension Sacred Heart.

Labrato said he had no problems with that being done. He said Sacred Heart would administer the vaccine even if it was losing money on it.

"So in COVID testing last year, Ascension Sacred Heart ate $1.3 million to COVID tests in Escambia County," Labrato said. "… We're going to do what's right."

Appointments for vaccines at Sacred Heart can be made online at getsacredheartcare.com.

Jim Little can be reached at jwlittle@pnj.com and 850-208-9827.