Frustration as thousands here seek scarce vaccinations

PHOTO BY BRENDA AHEARN

Forget vaccine clinics. What the county’s 65-and-over population really needs now are blood pressure clinics, after last week’s first public offering of the COVID-19 vaccine turned into a frenzy of futile phone calls – at a rate of several thousand per hour – to Cleveland Clinic Florida’s vaccine appointment line.

The deluge of calls along with a short supply of the vaccine ended up frustrating or even infuriating hundreds if not thousands of Vero Beach seniors seeking protection from the virus.

At the same time, there were tears of joy at the Indian River County fairgrounds Saturday as, one by one, the fortunate 500 people who did manage to sign up to be vaccinated by a team from Treasure Coast Community Health pulled over and parked next to idling ambulances in case they had a reaction to the vaccine.

The required 15-minute wait gave them a chance to absorb not just the vaccine, but a first ray of hope that the end of the pandemic may finally be in sight.

“It was the best shot I ever had,” said Rosie Haas, 71, a retired technology teacher at Oslo Middle School. Haas clicked a link from a Facebook post to get her appointment with TCCH. Minutes later, when she tried to get a spot for her husband, they were all filled. “I knew I was going to get it, but I wasn’t expecting it so soon.”

A larger-than-expected shipment of 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine reached the county health department last Tuesday. The shipment was intended to cover healthcare workers and emergency responders, but 500 left-over doses were handed off to TCCH for residents 65 and over.

Separately but in the same timeframe, Cleveland Clinic Florida hospitals received a batch of the same vaccine and set up a phone line to handle calls from people 65 and older seeking a vaccination. The vaccine would be offered to qualifying patients of the health system at locations in Broward, Palm Beach, Martin and Indian River counties.

A press release about the Cleveland Clinic vaccine went out to media outlets just minutes before county residents’ phones pinged with texts from Alert Indian River, an emergency notification system, that the TCCH vaccine clinic was taking place at the fairgrounds.

Wendy Grow, a social worker with Indian River County’s Economic Opportunities Council, saw the Cleveland Clinic news on WPTV, the local NBC affiliate. Checking the Cleveland Clinic Indian River website, she found the vaccine appointment phone number and called it 200 times, she said, before it finally gave her a second number for Indian River vaccinations.

It took another 75 calls before someone finally picked up.

Just as the agent on the phone had wrapped up her registration and was looking for an appointment time, the call was disconnected. Grow, beyond exasperated, set down her phone and walked away.

A few minutes later, she picked it up again. There was a voicemail, from a different number – it was the agent, calling her from his own cellphone. “The system crashed,” he said. “I went ahead and made you an appointment for Monday.”

“He’s my hero,” said Grow. “I felt like a teenager calling a radio station hundreds of times for a concert ticket I couldn’t afford. And then I finally won a ticket!”

Barbara Bachmann du Pont, like many other local residents, wasn’t so lucky. She tried calling the Cleveland Clinic for two hours last week, only getting a busy signal or being disconnected. Du Pont is desperate for a vaccine, not only for herself but for her husband and the home health aides who care for him.

Hal du Pont, who is in his 80s with several serious medical conditions that put him at high risk for severe COVID-19 disease, has required round-the-clock care for years, meaning multiple nursing aides are in and out of the house in shifts several times a day.

“It’s so frustrating,” said Barbara du Pont. “I spoke with the director of the home health agency and he’s equally frustrated.”

Du Pont is concerned that current vaccination setups requiring waits of an hour and half or more may be a challenge for Hal if she is able to get him an appointment.

“I guess he could go through a drive-through if it didn’t take too long, but he sure can’t wait for hours in a line somewhere,” Du Pont said.
She has tried to register her husband through her home health agency. “I believe they have the ability to put patients on a list, but that was days ago, and nobody’s contacted me or called me.”

As of Monday, home healthcare nurses had not had much success getting access to vaccines, according to Natalie Kornicks Savadge of Indian River Home Care, a different agency from the du Ponts’.

“We are in and out of the homes of a very vulnerable population,” she said. “You would think it would make sense to reach out to us.”

Lundy Fields, CEO of the VNA, said 43 VNA staffers have been vaccinated through Cleveland Clinic Indian River so far.

“Caregivers serving long-term care homes are first,” he said.

The vaccine is finally making it into local nursing homes. The family of one resident at Palm Garden said those in the nursing home who wanted the vaccine got it three weeks ago; as of last weekend, they had yet to hear of the follow-up dose being scheduled.

Consulate of Vero staff and patients also have been offered the vaccine, as have those at Florida Baptist’s skilled nursing component. Orchid Cove, the former Grace Rehab, has started the vaccination process.

Willowbrooke Court, the nursing home section of Indian River Estates, was expecting to get the vaccine for patients and staff on Jan. 7, a spokesman said. Vaccinations for those in assisted living and independent living have not yet been scheduled.

At press time Monday, that appeared to be the case at most if not all assisted living facilities in Indian River County. At least one facility sent a letter to residents encouraging them to get vaccinated elsewhere should doses become available.

Here and around the state, assisted living facilities have expressed frustration at losing their place in line when Gov. Ron DeSantis decided in December to go against CDC vaccine priorities and the state’s own plan and allow people 65 and over to get the vaccine, even as more vulnerable populations in eldercare homes are still waiting to be scheduled.

Nearly all long-term care facilities in the state have signed on with CVS or Walgreens to stage vaccine clinics onsite for their residents. The pharmacy giants will be getting vaccines directly from the federal government, separate from local health departments and hospital shipments.

Of late, COVID-19 infection in long-term care residents and staff has soared in Florida, with current resident cases up 122 percent in a month to 3,287, and staff cases up 61 percent, to 2,802.

Monday, the governor threatened to withhold vaccines from hospitals that take too long to deliver it. He also wants to contract for 1,000 nurses to help with inoculations. As he did previously with COVID-19 testing, he intends to send emergency response teams into long-term care facilities to help with vaccine delivery.

For Cleveland Clinic Indian River Hospital executives – and patients – the phone issue was deja vu.

Last fall, chronic busy signals and dropped calls plagued hospital-owned physician practices for two months after the launch of new electronic health records software. Finally, in mid-December, the hospital linked to a centralized appointments phone center in Weston.

Cleveland put dedicated vaccine scheduling lines in place for the Florida region, but they were overwhelmed last week. Now Cleveland Clinic says it’s “optimizing” its ability to schedule vaccines and is working to create an online registration platform – though as of Monday, it had used up all the vaccine allotted to it so far.

Cleveland Clinic Indian River hospital suspended its vaccine scheduling Monday after booking 2,000 vaccinations. It will resume scheduling as soon as it gets another shipment.

The state also has an online registry in development, according to a Martin County health department official who spoke at a news conference over the weekend, but that wasn’t mentioned at the governor’s Monday press conference. Similar platforms in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties crashed within hours of launch on Monday.

Up until last week, hospitals were shouldering the financial burden of vaccine delivery with only minimal support from the government. The CDC sent states a combined $340 million to help with vaccination costs, but there was universal agreement the process would cost much more.

Now, the recently signed CARES Act has allotted $8 billion for vaccine delivery, lending hope that things may soon smooth out, especially as vaccine makers speed up production. Monday, Moderna announced it was raising its minimum production in 2021 by 20 percent.

As of Sunday, Cleveland Clinic Florida had vaccinated nearly 5,700 people across the region, including 4,111 caregivers and 1,583 patients, according to a spokesman.

Wendy Grow’s Monday morning appointment at Cleveland Clinic Indian River was the last appointment available that day, she was told in the voicemail left by the appointments agent who called her back on his cellphone after they were disconnected Thursday.

When the time came, vaccinations at the hospital were running behind.

“A lot of people were standing outside,” Grow said. “They had to bring extra chairs.”

With her mask on and the line moving, Grow made it through the hospital’s main entrance to a hallway off the lobby. There, she filled out a registration form, then waited in another hallway before going into a room where the vaccination would take place.

After the shot, she was shuttled to another room to make an appointment for the second shot a month from now.

Asked how she felt when it was over, Grow said she was hungry but otherwise OK.

“It hurt a little when they first did the injection, but so far so good. It’s a great feeling to know I’m helping to rid the world of this devastating virus.”

Rosie Haas’ experience at the fairgrounds wasn’t quite as much fun as a visit to the Firefighters Fair, which had to be canceled last March due to COVID-19. But at least she avoided the roller coaster ride endured by thousands of residents who clicked on the sign-up link after she did – hopeful after seeing the availability announcement text Tuesday evening but crushed minutes later when they learned that all 500 doses were spoken for.

The names of people who clicked on the sign-up link were logged through to the county’s emergency operations center, transposed onto a spreadsheet by the emergency management coordinator and sent to Treasure Coast Community Health to be collated with available appointments.

Haas found the process stunningly simple. After clicking on the link, she filled out her name and scrolled through three time slots before she found one that was free: 1:45 p.m. Saturday.

“I’m getting a vaccine,” she said to her husband in astonishment.

When Saturday rolled around, the couple grabbed their masks, put the top down on the convertible, and headed out to the fairgrounds.

“We kind of made a little outing out of it,” she said.

“I was nervous when we left the house, but by the time we got there, I was calm.”

Haas was glad to see the fairgrounds set-up was a drive-through, just as it had been since June – though cars that lined up earlier, during the summer and fall, were filled with people far glummer than Saturday’s crowd.

For six months, the fairgrounds have been the site of TCCH’s free COVID-19 testing, and people who showed up were waiting for a nose swab that could bring bad news, rather than rolling up their sleeves for a vaccine that could save their lives.

“I had no idea what to expect,” said Haas of the vaccine drive-through. “But everyone was so pleasant, and it was so well-organized. And I liked that we had to wait 15 minutes at the end – that was smart. And then off we went. Now we just need to get one for my husband.”

Photos by Brenda Ahearn

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