OCALA, Fla. – Gov. Ron DeSantis said Friday the state will vaccinate based on age, not profession, as it moves forward with the next phase of the vaccine rollout.
“We’re going to do an age-based approach going forward. It will happen in March,” DeSantis said during a news conference in Ocala. “We will move the age down. I haven’t got that exact date because it’s dependent on the vaccine supply and it’s dependent on making sure we’re getting shots in the arms for seniors.”
DeSantis said the next step will involve lowering the age from 65 and up to either 60 or 55 and up as more vaccine becomes available.
“Most likely we’ll do 60 and then we’ll do the next week 55,” DeSantis said. “If you’re 60, you’re going to be able to go. It doesn’t matter what your vocation is. It doesn’t matter if you’re retired, you’re going to be able to go.”
He said an announcement will be coming “relatively soon.”
The potential drop in age comes as the demand from seniors appears to be waning, at least in Jacksonville.
At the federal site at the Gateway Mall, just 840 shots were given Thursday even though the site has a capacity of 2,000 a day.
At the two other federal satellite sites, 150 people were vaccinated at the site on the Westside but only 29 people received the vaccine at the location in Northwest Jacksonville on Thursday.
“What we’re hearing across the community is that they have a lot of unused vaccine at these sites because of this age limitation,” said Chad Neilsen with UF Health.
Neilsen said the best way to make sure every vaccine is being put to use is to expand the age requirements because some of the people in the eligible categories are not showing up for their appointments. Leaving leftover vaccines for people who want them.
With the rough outline of how the vaccine rollout will happen going forward, DeSantis has again chosen to break with recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The CDC recommends that frontline essential workers like grocery store workers, manufacturing workers and public transit workers should be among the first groups to receive the vaccine in Phase 1b. In Phase 1c, the CDC says people aged 65-74 as well as other essential workers like those in the food service industry and others who interact with large numbers of people should be vaccinated in order to limit community spread.
Health officials say people like grocery store workers should be vaccinated because they come in contact with seniors and other vulnerable people every day.
“I think there’s a lot of risks,” said Publix employee Francisco Garcia. “You’re in touch with different customers every single day. On top of that you have corkers that have their own lives so you could get it from anywhere.”
Vaccinating by age will help the older population but the virus could continue to spread to the most vulnerable because the younger population isn’t getting vaccinated, according to experts.
“I absolutely understand the governor wants to prioritize age. This is a state with a significant elderly population. The way to protect our seniors is not only to vaccinate them but vaccinate people who come in contact with them,” said Dr. Jonathan Kantor, a scholar at the Penn Center for Global Health.
Kantor and Neilsen say the quicker the state expands vaccinations to more age groups the quicker variants of COVID-19 will stop forming.
“With these variants out here rotating, people in my field are concerned because if you don’t start getting vaccinations out to everybody quicker we’re going to have another surge,” Neilsen said. “We have to have a better system in place if we expect to vaccinate a large number of people or else we’re going to be well past summer before people like you get the vaccine.”
This week DeSantis did address some of the groups in the CDC’s Phase 1b and Phase 1c when he said that teachers, members of law enforcement 50 and older and those considered “extremely vulnerable” can be vaccinated at state sites.
Meanwhile, teachers of all ages can be vaccinated at CVS, Walmart and Publix as well as at the four federally supported sites that opened in Florida on Wednesday. A federal directive allows for teachers, day care workers, bus drivers and monitors, custodial workers, as well as other school support staff to be vaccinated at the federal site at the Gateway Mall.
DeSantis said his plan is meant to address the groups that are most likely to die due to coronavirus complications.
“If you look at COVID and the statistics nationally, 95.7% of all COVID-related mortality is age 50 or above. That was why we did seniors first. That is why we will lower the age but we are still going to be focusing on those people who are 50 up because that’s the best way to save the most lives,” he said.
DeSantis also announced during the Friday morning news conference that Florida’s much-anticipated 175,000 doses of Johnson & Johnson vaccine had arrived Thursday night. The state is working on a plan to distribute those doses that will likely concentrate on law enforcement officers, DeSantis said.
Health experts believe that once more of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is available the state should be able to vaccinate more people in different age groups.