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Making COVID Vaccine Info Available for All Floridians

An older man and two women on bikes
(From left) Samuel Ramirez, 74, Awilda Torres, 61, and Alicia Ramirez, 67, ride bikes behind their home in Altamonte Springs.
Photo by Cassi Alexandra

Karen Bartoszek, of Safety Harbor, recalls the early weeks of Florida’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout as chaotic and stressful. Her mother is 94 and doesn’t have strong computer skills, and scheduling an appointment proved challenging. 

“It felt like it was a scramble and competitive,” she said. “Seniors without technical knowledge or internet access could be stranded.”

Unable to get her mom vaccinated in Pinellas County, where they both live, Bartoszek snagged an appointment in neighboring Pasco County. “I started crying, I was so happy,” said Bartoszek, who was vaccinated in mid-April, at a local Publix. “Things have gotten a lot smoother.”

Many Floridians had similar experiences during the early months of the vaccine rollout. Online appointment portals crashed, phone lines jammed and older residents camped out in their cars for a place in line. 

Though COVID-19 vaccines are now widely available and a majority of Floridians 65 and older have gotten their shots, AARP Florida is still providing critical information and helping anyone who has not been vaccinated but wants to be.

It has held virtual town halls, responded to emails and phone calls about how to make appointments, and mailed out nearly 250,000 flyers warning about vaccine-related scams. 

AARP is also pushing to ensure that older homebound residents can be vaccinated.

“There is a greater need for enhanced focus on overcoming hesitancy, reaching multicultural audiences, homebound individuals and unvaccinated health care workers in long-term care facilities,” said Jeff Johnson, state director for AARP Florida. 

To help someone who is isolated, encourage them to call Florida’s Elder Helpline at 800-963-5337 or find their local Area Agency on Aging at elderaffairs.org, which has an interactive map and contact information. Go to aarp.org/flvaccine for more.

While Florida was the first state to prioritize people 65 and older instead of essential workers, complaints of inequitable distribution dogged Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). The state also lagged behind many others in the percentage of residents receiving shots. 

Still, many older Floridians say they understand the challenge the state faced.

“The government initially was a little slow in its response, but it was new,” said Alicia Ramirez, 67, of Altamonte Springs. She and her 74-year-old husband were fully vaccinated by late January. They signed up for alerts from the county health department.

“The minute I got the alerts I was able to get an appointment,” she said. “A half hour later there were none, so we were lucky.” 

Ramirez has been surprised and disappointed by the number of people avoiding vaccination. “People believe what they want to believe, rather than science.”

Deborah Gray Mitchell, a 70-year-old retired photographer who lives with her 71-year-old partner in Miami, never had doubts about vaccine safety and was eager to get one. “Trying to get an appointment was like trying to win the lottery,” she said.

Older Floridians who are vaccinated are reentering the world. Mitchell had a small dinner party with vaccinated friends. Bartoszek plans to go to a museum. 

“Emotionally, I feel better,” said Ramirez, who has gone out in small groups. “This has given us some peace of mind.” 

Tom Scherberger is a writer living in Tampa.

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