Jacksonville hospital among 5 in Florida to get COVID-19 vaccine first

Gov. DeSantis details state’s plan for vaccine distribution

VIDEO: Gov. Ron DeSantis provided an update on Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, saying the state believes a “safe and effective” vaccine will be delivered “relatively soon.”

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday provided an update on Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, saying the state believes a “safe and effective” vaccine will be delivered “relatively soon.”

In a video, DeSantis said that since July, Florida has been planning and preparing for vaccine distribution, including purchasing necessary supplies — five million syringes, five million needles and five million alcohol swabs.

DeSantis expressed optimism about both Pfizer and Moderna reporting vaccines with around 95% effectiveness. Those vaccines are awaiting approval from the Food and Drug Administration.

“Right now, the best estimate that the federal government has is that by the end of December, pending FDA approval, there will be roughly 40 million doses of these two vaccines available -- 25 million for Pfizer and 15 million for Moderna. Each individual requires two doses. That would mean there will be enough vaccine for 20 million Americans by the end of December,” DeSantis said. “The good thing about this is millions of doses are ready to ship as we speak. As soon as the FDA approves, they will then go out within the next 24 hours. We expect our hospitals, hopefully, to receive these within the next three to six weeks.”

Five hospitals throughout the state are prepared to store the vaccine, including UF Health in Jacksonville.

“The Pfizer vaccine is one that needs to be stored in negative 70-degree temperatures. The state of Florida has identified 5 different hospital systems who have the ability to store the vaccine at those temperatures and administer that to the qualifying individuals,” DeSantis said. “The Moderna vaccine can be used in normal refrigeration and does not require those extreme low temperatures. That will potentially provide more flexibility.”

Dr. Chad Neilsen, UF Health Jacksonville director accreditation and infection prevention, said the hospital has been planning and preparing for several weeks for future distribution.

“We’ve been going through the process of identifying the staff to do it, the stuff to do it, the space to do it -- all the kinds of indicators of how can we be ready for this whenever it comes,” Neilsen said.

The Governor says that people living in Florida will not be required to get a vaccine but it wants to make sure people who do want to get one have access to it.

According to the state’s COVID-19 Vaccination Plan, health care employees, essential workers, high-risk and older populations are expected to be the first who would receive the vaccine.

Dr. Mohammed Reza, an infectious disease specialist, told News4Jax it could be the middle of next year when the general population will be able to receive the vaccine.

“We still need more data. We’re getting a glimpse of the effectiveness of this vaccine, but at the same time, we need to see if it’s going to help those older than 65, those with underlying health conditions because those are the people that are going to need this vaccine, the protection of this vaccine,” Reza said. “The other thing is we don’t know how long the vaccine will provide protection, as well.”

DeSantis made sure to address that the vaccine will not be mandated in Florida.

“Our goal is to make all safe and effective COVID vaccines available to Floridians who want them, but the state will not mandate that Floridians take these vaccines. That is going to be the choice of each and every Floridian,” said DeSantis, whose office released the video two days after the governor met with Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield and other federal officials.

Dr. Jeffrey Goldhagen, former director of the Duval County health department, said he hopes the vaccine is successful in helping protect Floridians from the virus, but he said local health departments across the state have had their budgets cut for years, so he has concerns.

“As an example, the ability to transport the vaccine, keep the vaccine cold, actually disseminate the vaccine, distribute the vaccine, give the vaccine as far as nurses and so on,” Goldhagen said.

Goldhagen said staff at the health department in Duval County is roughly half of what it was when he was in charge.

Now, he said, he’s working with a group called the Population Health Consortium of Northeast Florida to help assist in any way possible.

“The purpose of implementing that consortium was to be able to provide the expertise and resources to help the state and help our local community, our local health department be able to design and implement our needs here on the local level,” Goldhagen said.

Long-term care facilities

The governor said that around the same time hospitals get the vaccine, CVS and Walgreens will also receive doses to administer to residents of long-term care facilities, nearly 2,000 of which have registered so their residents can be vaccinated.

News4Jax reached out to numerous long-term care facilities, none of which had heard yet from the state about a date when they’ll get the vaccine. At Oak View Rehabilitation Center said it’s watching for news with “an eagle eye.” And Benton House at Oakleaf said there hasn’t been any directive yet from corporate but said it’s “absolutely” watching this issue closely.

Gov. Ron DeSantis on Thursday provided an update on Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine distribution plan, saying the state believes a “safe and effective” vaccine will be delivered “relatively soon.”

Steve Bahmer, president and CEO of LeadingAge Florida, has been on the state’s subcommittee, planning the vaccine rollout. Bahmer said most facilities are registered with the state to get the vaccine as soon as possible.

“There are some remaining questions to work through in how many doses will come to Florida? When will they be here? How will they be prioritized when they get here? That sort of thing,” Bahmer said. “But the initial work of getting providers registered to receive the vaccine when it’s available has been a primary role for us, and that work is done.”

If you have a loved one in a long-term care facility and this is something you may want for them, Bahmer said to contact the facility and ask where it is as far as signing up to receive doses when they’re available.

New therapeutic drug

In addition to using the video to tout the vaccines, DeSantis also spoke about a new therapeutic drug developed by Eli Lilly that the federal government authorized for emergency use and said more than 3,000 doses have been sent to Florida.

Does local health departments have the manpower to get the vaccine to everyone in need?

The therapeutic is administered intravenously and is targeted for people who are at high risk of severe complications from COVID-19.

“I do believe that these breakthroughs represent probably the greatest rays of hope that we have seen since the pandemic began,” DeSantis said of the vaccines and new therapeutics. “They offer the prospect of saving thousands and thousands of lives, and to potentially bring this pandemic to an end.”

The News Service of Florida contributed to this report.

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Jacksonville native and proud University of Florida graduate who joined News4JAX in 2016.