Community asks local experts about COVID-19 vaccine 

If you are under age 65, have underlying health conditions and are an essential worker, when is it your turn to get a COVID-19 vaccination?

That is one of a dozen questions local residents asked of health care representatives during a virtual COVID-19 vaccine town hall discussion on Wednesday night.

The answer to this question came from Dr. David Nelson, president of UF Health and the University of Florida’s senior vice president for health affairs. He said UF Health will take care of essential workers for the university, such as the campus police department and EMTs, along with the over-65 population.

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“We clearly think essential workers should be part of this next wave,” Nelson said. 

Florida Department of Health Director Paul Myers said that once the requirements of the governor’s executive order are satisfied, he thinks the decision of the next recipients should be made collectively by the health department and elected officials.

“When you have to prioritize, do teachers come before law enforcement officers? Do police officers come before grocery workers?” Myers said. “We have to make some value judgments in our community and I am not going to sit here and make those by myself.”

Myers said those conversations need to happen in the public square at commission meetings.

Alachua County Commission Chair Ken Cornell, who served as the moderator of the hour-long discussion, said the topic will be on the agenda at the next Board of County Commissioners (BOCC) meeting on Jan. 12th.

“We are all attempting to get as much public input [as possible] for this next phase,” Cornell said.

Myers estimated that the Alachua County population over 65 would be inoculated within two months or less, if the pace of 5,000 or more per week is maintained and there are 40,000 residents in that age range.

The town hall discussion included Myers, Nelson, Gainesville Mayor Lauren Poe, North Florida Regional Medical Center (NFRMC) CEO Eric Lawson and Thomas Wisnieski, director of the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System.

Each participant gave an update about the current status of their respective vaccine programs. Cornell made it clear the vaccine rollout plan is under Florida Gov. Ron Desantis’ control and that the county and municipalities are following DeSantis’ executive order outlining the phases of distribution, which starts with health care workers and vulnerable over age 65 population.

Myers explained why Alachua County is leading in vaccine distribution, highlighting some of the successes.

“Early on we leveraged resources from partners,” he said. Myers pointed to setting up testing sites early on in all areas of the county, delivering PPE to first responders, and testing long-term care (LTC) staff and residents.

As a result, Myers said Alachua County has one of the lowest LTC deaths rates in Florida, the lowest pediatric positivity rate in the State, one of the highest per capita testing rates, and currently one of the highest rates of vaccinations in the state.

“As of today we have vaccinated health care workers, EMTs, paramedics, seniors in LTC facilities,” Myers said. He added that the health department is now scheduling eight vaccine clinics that will cover several thousand residents over the age of 65. That is in addition to the UF Health system, NFRMC and the VA hospitals that are targeting the 65 and older population. 

Myers said 3.2 percent of the vaccines administered in Florida have been in Alachua County. That comes to 10,611 out of 329,000 doses allotted to Florida. 

Alachua County has 1.2 percent of the total Florida population Myers said, but is ranked ninth out of 67 counties in the number of people who have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Myers asked that residents continue to be patient as more vaccine doses become available and recommended registering online when the time comes.

The public asked questions about how the vaccine is delivered, what kind of side effects have been reported, what the efficacy of the vaccine is and how to put in a request for the vaccine if a person has underlying health conditions. 

Residents who already have been patients at NFRMC and UF Health are encouraged to reach out to their primary physician and request to be put on the list to receive the vaccine. 

To watch the full town hall meeting click here.

Click here to see Alachua County’s webpage for frequently asked questions about COVID-19 and vaccines.

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