You’d have thought Billy Joel was in town for a concert. “They got here at 7:40 pm.,” Gretchen Smith, the Flagler Health Department’s spokesperson, said of the first carload that arrived Friday night at the county fairgrounds, in anticipation for the coronavirus vaccination event the next day. That wasn’t to start for another 14 hours. “They had snacks, they had backgammon, she said it was a beautiful night, and then she said the next car came at 11 p.m.”
When a team of 70 health department staffers and volunteers from Flagler County Volunteer Services began vaccinating at around 9:15, the line of cars on County Road 13 was stretching all the way to U.S. 1, though there were just 600 vaccines to dispense today, with more coming next week: the health department is expecting its second shipment, this one of 500 vaccines, on Monday, and more vaccination days on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, or as supplies last.
By around noon, between 350 and 400 people had been vaccinated, most of them health care workers who don’t work at a local hospital or assisted living facility, or people who are 65 and over. Though the event was designed for health care workers primarily, the department said it would not turn away anyone 65 and over, in accordance with the governor’s order to place the priority on that age group.
Of those 350 to 400 vaccinated people, none signaled any form of distress as the vaccinated lined up in a field for 15 minutes of observation. Had there been trouble–an allergic reaction or anything else–they’d have honked, and health department staff would have rushed over with a rolling, metal cabinet of sorts containing anything necessary by way of immediate aid in case of a reaction, including an oxygen tank. But it sat all morning and into the afternoon unused, next to the team of health department staffers preparing shot after shot of the Moderna Covid-19 vaccine.
The biggest issue was a stalled car. “We need jumper cables at Station Four, please,” the health department director said at one point into his portable radio.
Despite serious delays in the delivery of vaccine doses, chaos, disorganization, unanswered questions and uncertainty about when and where the next doses will arrive–the Trump administration shrugged off all delivery and logistical responsibilities to state and localities already overwhelmed by the pandemic–the event at the fairgrounds went off relatively smoothly, with more cheers and thumbs up than people being turned away. It was organized in haste by the health department and the county’s emergency management division, the double-barreled organizational system that’s managed the pandemic locally since March.
“At one point we hit U.S. 1, when that actually happened, we did a rough count of cars, and we actually told anyone that wasn’t in line already, we knew for sure they weren’t going to get vaccines,” Jonathan Lord, who heads emergency management and was at the fairgrounds, said around 11:30 a.m.
“We’ll probably get in all the people who have been lined up since this morning, because there were no more cars out there on 13,” Bob Snyder, the director of the health department, said at 11:30. (More cars would actually line up later on, but it wasn’t certain whether those car occupants would be inoculated.) “Today was the only day that we did not have appointments. It was specifically for health care workers, which is the majority of the people from what we can tell,” Snyder said. “We’ll be vaccinating 600 people before the day is out.”
When it started, the teams were managing to vaccinate five cars in 12 minutes. By noon, it was five cars in four minutes.
The process started at the first station with Lisa Sanchez and her team checking people’s identification–work ID showing they’re health care employees, or a driver’s license showing they’re over 65. No one was turned away, even if the person was from out of the county.
The wait was not short: with hundreds of cars in line, the health teams, organized in four stations at which motorists would stop in turn (one for paperwork, one for screening, one for the actual shots, one for the 15-minute wait), five carloads were processed every 12 minutes at the start of the event. But as was the case earlier this week when inoculations took place at the county’s Emergency Operations Center, the mood was more festive than apprehensive. There were no signs of impatience.
Starting next week, the county will have an online portal for people setting up their appointments. “Depending on the number of vaccines we definitely see on Monday,” Lord said (county and health officials have learned over the months never to count any Covid-related materiel until it’s in possession), “we’ll open up that many appointments. People will make an appointment, and then show up here at the time of their appointment.” The Eventbrite appointment site will not go live until the county gets the vaccines in hand.
People can also sign up for text-message alerts. People who did not get vaccinated today got a flier explaining how to get vaccine updates by signing up and texting “Flaglercovid” to 888-777.
“Once we’re out of slots based on the vaccines we’ll have to stop the appointments until the next rounds,” Lord said.
All this actually entails twice as much work: every recipient of the vaccine must get two shots–three weeks apart for the Moderna vaccine–for the inoculation to be effective. That means if all of Flagler’s adult population were vaccinated, local officials would have to be prepared to administer 200,000 shots. That puts today’s event in perspective: it was a very small example of what’s necessarily ahead.
Emergency and health department officials must contend with the emergency–and the fact that they’ve ended up shouldering much of the vaccination protocols–in addition to their usual responsibilities, and their ongoing Covid responsibilities.
“We’re in a situation where we need to keep public health services going throughout the week, and vaccinations and still community testing, case investigations, contact tracing, knowing that the month of January is going to be one of the roughest months for cases,” Snyder said.” So we’re doing all of these things all at the same time. So it’s a matter of prioritization. There’s a lot there. We have 20, 25 different programs right at the health department. So what we’ll do is we’ll keep emergency services going, the example would be pre-natal care, or just any emergent situation, like in our dental clinic. What we will do to make this vaccination assignment a priority and responsibility a priority, we might close non-emergent clinics during the day or during the afternoon, and then reschedule appointments going forward so that we have the personnel.”
As of today, the Flagler County Health Department has 90 staff members, 56 of them rank and file everyday staff, the rest added since the pandemic. The department is seeking to hire 10 to 12 more. “We’re just going to reassign job duties, reassign personnel to this vaccination effort, just like we did with community testing early on, because this is priority,” Snyder said.