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As COVID-19 Vaccines Arrive State, Florida Finalizes Priority List

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the United States, infecting more than 14 million people since the country began tracking figures earlier this year. The 14 million figure, represents about 4% of the U.S. population. The virus has killed 276,000 people in this country. These figures come from Johns Hopkins University which was an early tracker of COVID-19.

Now, after months of economic stagnation and lockdowns, social distancing and crowded hospitals, there’s light at the end of what, to some, may have felt like a never-ending tunnel of darkness:

“We anticipate an FDA approval for the Pfizer vaccine. And we believe the following week, we will see FDA approval for the Moderna vaccine," said Gov. Ron DeSantis in a recent video message.

He says the vaccine will first go to people in long-term care facilities like nursing homes, and next be distributed to healthcare workers "in high risk, high contact environments."

The decision to prioritize those people, says Florida A&M University epidemiologist Perry Brown, is based on the historical record of the virus: who it’s most likely to infect, and kill.

“First responders, nurses doctors, nursing home staff," said Brown. "And then, who is at risk of serious infection and death? And those would be the nursing home and long-term care residents, who have pre-existing conditions."

Prioritizing those groups is relatively simple, Brown says. After that, things get messy. Ideally, the next groups Brown says should go are those who are immunocompromised, have pre-existing conditions like heart disease and diabetes that make the effects of COVID-19 worse. Many of the people who fall into those groups are Black, Latino and Native American. Minority communities have been hit hard by the virus.

"And yet, the prioritization there is difficult…a difficult thing, because we do understand those communities are going to be saying ‘hey, what about us?” He said.

Also saying “hey, what about us?” Are teachers.

“We’re asking a lot of them, not unlike other essential workers in our community. So in my mind, they should be right there at the top of the list for a vaccination when one becomes available,” Leon County School Superintendent Rocky Hanna recently said during a meeting of city and county leaders.

He echoes the position of teachers unions who are trying to be included in the early phases of the vaccine rollout.

After nursing home residents and healthcare workers, Gov. DeSantis says the state will then turn its attention to people over 65 “and those with significant co-morbidities.”

Florida will use pharmacies like CVS and Walgreens to distribute the injections, which is similar to how the federal government has planned the rollout. That makes sense, says Brown.

“That might facilitate the widest, quickest possible distribution of the vaccine when we get to that point.”

While DeSantis hasn’t talked about the role public health departments and other providers will have, Brown says, that’s likely coming.

Yet he worries some people may not take the vaccine due to concerns about how it was made, or be scared away from it due to a bad experience. Side effects like soreness at the injection site, and low-grade fevers have been reported. The CDC is even trying to reassure people that the vaccines, which were produced in a new way, won’t alter their DNA. Brown says he personally plans to get a shot when they become available. He too, has a pre-existing condition.

“I had a conversation with a friend who asked me ‘how do you weigh the risk of the vaccine against the risk of COVID?’ And I said ‘well, I have a pre-existing condition, so I see the risk of some reaction to the vaccine as being much lower than the risk of me developing a serious infection should I be infected with COVID-19.”

Even with a vaccine, there are still a lot of unknowns. Chief among them, how long will it last? A year, two, forever? That’s a matter of time and tracking. An society is impatient. Still, he believes COVID-19 is here, to stay, and that it, "may become an intractable part of our existence."

It will be hard, he thinks, to go back to the way people lived prior to the pandemic.

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Lynn Hatter is a Florida A&M University graduate with a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lynn has served as reporter/producer for WFSU since 2007 with education and health care issues as her key coverage areas.  She is an award-winning member of the Capital Press Corps and has participated in the NPR Kaiser Health News Reporting Partnership and NPR Education Initiative. 

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