GAINESVILLE, Fla. — With the novel coronavirus continuing its unabated march through communities local and global, University of Florida Health is moving into the next stage of its COVID-19 vaccination program this week as it begins to offer vaccines to more than 11,000 UF Health patients in Alachua County ages 65 and over.
At the same time, UF Health is working to support the state Department of Health in Alachua County as it lays the groundwork for local efforts to vaccinate the wider community, planning to contribute personnel, training, expertise and an additional vaccination site to help expand access.
These steps and others, dependent on a continuing and steady supply of vaccine, are hoped to begin to blunt and eventually extinguish a pandemic that has reached deeply into the lives of most Floridians.
And they build on the county and UF Health’s successful collaboration on coronavirus testing and contact tracing in the community that started last year with UF Health Screen, Test & Protect and continued through the most difficult months of the pandemic.
“We’re excited to play a key role in protecting our community by vaccinating as many people as possible,” said Dr. David R. Nelson, senior vice president for health affairs at UF and president of UF Health. “This joint effort with the Department of Health will help end this pandemic and get us back to our normal lives and routines. We live in the communities where we work. And we’re completely committed to assist with getting vaccinations for our neighbors as quickly as is possible. We appreciate everyone’s patience; we are working fast but understandably any undertaking of this magnitude is going to take some time.”
UF Health patients ages 65 and over who are residents of Alachua County and have accessed the health system within the past 12 months are expected to begin receiving notices this week through their online MyUFHealth accounts offering appointments for vaccinations. That criteria, however, will be expanded in coming days and weeks to include additional UF Health patients as vaccine supplies increase.
There are 11,309 patients in this first group, so appointments will by necessity have to spread out over more than a month to accommodate everyone. Vaccinations will take place primarily at UF Health Springhill.
Following state and federal guidelines, UF Health continues to vaccinate at-risk, front-line health workers, especially those who care for COVID-19 patients. The health system also is offering vaccines to staff and faculty ages 65 and older.
So far, UF Health has vaccinated more than 15,000 people at its Gainesville, Jacksonville and Central Florida campuses.
Starting later this week, the state Department of Health in Alachua County hopes to stand up an appointment-only vaccination site at the Martin Luther King Jr. Multipurpose Center. That will be followed perhaps as soon as next week by sites at the UF Cultural Plaza/Museums on Hull Road, with the department providing vaccine doses and administrative oversight. UF Health will support the effort with a team of trained vaccinators from across its hospital system and health colleges.
“Collaborating on vaccinations builds upon our testing and contact tracing efforts that began during the very early stages of this pandemic,” said Paul Myers, administrator of the state Department of Health in Alachua County. “Leveraging state, county and UF Health resources in service to our community will result in lives saved and improved.”
UF Health and North Florida Regional Medical Center continue to offer vaccinations through their own affiliated providers, while the Department of Health in Alachua County is supporting those community practices that do not have local hospital affiliations.
UF Health, meantime, is ramping up the training of nurses, physician assistants, medical, dental, and pharmacy students, faculty and other volunteers so that they can vaccinate community members at health department sites and help expand UF Health’s reach.
As the vaccine supply expands in the coming weeks and months, it is expected that categories of residents eligible to be vaccinated will grow wider so that eventually anyone who wants to be vaccinated can get one.
“We will follow the governor’s and CDC guidance to focus on the most vulnerable in our community first, and then the broader community — teachers, bus drivers and other essential workers — as vaccine supplies allow,” Nelson said.
After nearly three weeks, and thousands of vaccines administered, UF Health has seen very few adverse reactions. Most of the minor symptoms dissipate quickly.
Dr. Nicole Iovine, chief epidemiology officer for UF Health Shands Hospital, said it is crucial for residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible, especially the elderly.
“Getting a vaccine is an extremely important thing that you can do to protect your health,” Iovine said. “These vaccines have gone through all of the same reviews and safeguards as every other vaccine. They are safe and effective.”
Dr. Michael Lauzardo, deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a public health specialist who directs the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative, said he is confident that vaccine supplies will quickly expand nationally in the coming weeks and months.
“We’ve just got to encourage people to get vaccinated,” he said. “That’s the key step in getting the pandemic under control and then eliminated.”
UF Health science writer Doug Bennett contributed to this report.