Vaccine shortage hindering hospital employee inoculations in Lee and Collier

Frank Gluck Liz Freeman
Fort Myers News-Press

The shortage of COVID-19 vaccines that has sent panicked seniors scrambling for reservations has left roughly half the qualified employees of Southwest Florida's largest hospital operators also waiting to get shots, according to vaccination records.

Lee County-based Lee Health has vaccinated 5,600 of its13,500 full- and part-time employees, according to records provided Thursday by Lee Health, the region's largest public health system.

In Collier County, NCH Healthcare System has vaccinated about 2,900 of its roughly 5,000 employees. Physicians Regional Healthcare System has vaccinated all of its health workers who wanted the shots. The system declined to state how many that was.

More:Tracking COVID-19 vaccine distribution by state: How many people in the US have received a shot?

At Lee Health, about 2,600 employees have received the needed second dose. The rest will get second shots as their required 21-day wait expires and an expected shipment arrives in the coming weeks, spokeswoman Mary Briggs said.

Since all but a few thousand of Lee Health's employees regularly interact with patients, that means the current vaccination total accounts for approximately half those needing shots for the hospital system to be fully protected, Briggs said.

John Armitstead, director of pharmacy at Lee Health, prepares a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccine was administered at Lee Health Gulf Coast Medical Center in Fort Myers on Tuesday, December 22, 2020.

"We have received no additional first-dose vaccines," Briggs said. "So, at this point, we cannot vaccinate any more employees because we don't have any vaccine."

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Lee Health does not track vaccinations by such job titles as, say, Emergency Department doctor or ICU nurse, Briggs said. It's only tracking whether employees qualify because of their age, underlying medical condition and whether they interact with patients, she said.

Certain members of the hospital leadership also qualify.

Larry Antonucci, the hospital system's 67-year-old president and CEO, has been vaccinated, the hospital system recently announced.

Qualifying members of the hospital system's elected Board of Directors have also been offered vaccinations, board member Steve Brown said. The hospital system has not said which members have received them, citing medical privacy laws.

Brown, 78, said he declined a vaccination initially because the allocation would not have allowed his 78-year-old wife to get one too. He said they both were able to get first doses from their Lee Physician Group clinic though. He's still waiting on the second dose.

He added that he's worried that the second dose will be delayed due to shortages.

"The governor's way that he's handing out the vaccine seems very impractical to me," Brown said.

More:COVID-19 deaths: A look at who is dying from the coronavirus in Southwest Florida

Lee health has received a combined 15,350 doses of vaccine from drug manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna, according to records obtained under Florida's open records law.

Antonucci recently told The News-Press and Naples Daily News that the hospital system gets notifications only shortly before shipments come in.

"So it's very difficult to plan. That's one of the challenges we're facing," he said.

Besides the employee vaccinations, Lee Health has provided 1,110 shots to other health workers in the community, 908 to hospital volunteers who regularly interact with patients and 2,300 to qualifying patients of its subsidiary Lee Physician Group, the records show.

Lee Health is not requiring employees to get vaccinated for COVID-19, though about 80% have indicated in an internal survey that they plan to do so. 

More:Some Florida hospitals won't require COVID-19 vaccinations, even as they require flu shots

Collier County vaccinations

NCH Healthcare System in Collier County has provided the Moderna vaccine to 2,879 employees and physicians on staff so far from an initial allotment of 4,900 doses received Dec. 23, according to NCH spokesman Shawn McConnell.

“Still others await their turn to receive their first dose of the vaccine when another allocation arrives at NCH,” he said.

NCH has about 5,000 employees, of which 1,800 are high risk who have daily contact with people infected with COVID-19, according to Dr. David Lindner, medical director of the COVID-19 response team. The hospital system has 700 physicians on staff.

Of the initial shipment, the hospital set aside 1,200 doses in early January for people 65 and older by appointment, which went quickly.

NCH received a second shipment of 4,900 doses that are already allocated to those who have received their first dose.

More:Second doses of COVID-19 vaccine becoming available in Southwest Florida for seniors

NCH Healthcare Systems Director of Occupational Health and Registered Nurse Lisa Fletcher prepares a dose of the COVID-19 vaccine by Medorna during a press conference, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at NCH Baker Hospital in Naples.

NCH is not requiring medical staff to get the vaccine, but a survey late last year found that 69% said they wanted it, 17% said they did not and 14% were uncertain.

“We are in the process of putting together another survey to offer those who were either unsure or were not interested in receiving the vaccine to find out their reasons why,” McConnell said. “All staff, however, are required to wear proper PPE as appropriate for all patient encounters, regardless of whether or not employees have or have not received the vaccine.”

Physicians Regional Healthcare System in Collier is not making the vaccine mandatory for employees, spokeswoman Brittney Thoman said. Physicians Regional received 595 doses of the Moderna vaccine in late December and has since received its second-dose allocation.

“Our team members have the right to consider this personal decision and we hope that even more will choose to accept vaccination over time,” she said.

RN Allision Walters administers the COVID-19 vaccine to RN Chantel McFarland-Bauer during a press conference, Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020, at NCH Baker Hospital in Naples.

She did not say how many employees got the shot or how many declined.

“To date, all of our assigned doses have been used and we have been able to vaccinate all of our healthcare workers who have chosen to accept this opportunity for immunization,” she said. “We are focused on educating our employees about the vaccine, including sharing information about safety, efficacy and side effects.”

Frank Gluck is a watchdog reporter with The News-Press and the Naples Daily News. Connect with him at or on Twitter: @FrankGluck