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Lee Health has distributed only half its vaccines; medical staff, volunteers, at-risk patients are priorities

Frank Gluck
Fort Myers News-Press

Thursday update: 

Lee Health has released the following statement: 

"Lee Health’s switchboard has been overwhelmed with people calling to make appointments for vaccination. We are asking the community to discontinue calls to Lee Physician Group for vaccination appointments so that people who need to reach our hospitals may do so.

"Our limited supply of vaccinations for patients in Lee Physician Group offices is spoken for at this time. We will let the community know when we have more vaccines to offer to patientsLee Health has distributed only about half of its COVID-19 vaccines, but its top administrator said Wednesday that the hospital system is working as quickly as it can to inoculate its front-line workers, volunteers and at-risk patients."

Earlier: 

Lee Health has distributed only about half of its COVID-19 vaccines, but its top administrator said Wednesday that the hospital system is working as quickly as it can to inoculate its front-line workers, volunteers and at-risk patients.

Larry Antonucci, the organization's president and CEO, said that also includes sharing hundreds of doses of its existing supply with area medical practices, including its subsidiary, Lee Physician Group. 

On Thursday, Lee Health will provide an unspecified "limited supply" of vaccines for LPG patients over 65 with significant underlying medical conditions. LPG will contact those who qualify.

Dr. Larry Antonucci, president and CEO of Lee Health

More:NCH Healthcare System to start COVID-19 vaccinations for people 65 and older

Meanwhile in Collier County, the NCH Healthcare System will begin offering the COVID-19 vaccination to people 65 and older in the community on Friday, according to hospital officials.

Appointments are required and sign-ups will begin Thursday at noon at the hospital website at www.nchmd.org.

A total of 1,200 appointments are available between the NCH Baker Hospital near downtown Naples and NCH North Naples, said Ilia Echevarria, executive director of NCH’s COVID-19 response team.

Antonucci didn't mention recent statements by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis implying that the health system was to blame for long lines at Lee County vaccination events for the general public.

More:Gov. Ron DeSantis blames Lee hospital officials for seniors waiting in long lines to get COVID-19 vaccine

But he made a point of noting that the governor had assigned the county and the state's Department of Health with the primary mission of vaccinating the community.

Lee Health's mission, he said, was to vaccinate health care workers, volunteers and patients. Lee Health is also working with CVS to vaccinate patients and employees at Lee Health-operated skilled nursing facilities, he said.

"We all have the same goals of protecting people and creating herd immunity as quickly as possible," he said. "This collaboration allows each organization to leverage their respective roles in our communities to increase the number of access points to provide more vaccines."

The publicly operated Lee Health received its first shipment of 4,245 Pfizer-BioNTech-manufactured vaccines just over two weeks ago for its patients and staff. Another shipment it received, of Moderna-made vaccines, gave the health system about 10,000 doses total, officials said.

"About half" of those doses have been distributed to date, Antonucci said, with the rest expected to be given out by early next week. He did not provide the exact figure of vaccinations given so far. 

"Admittedly, that's a little slower than we would have liked," he said. "But we had two major holidays to deal with. And we are ramping up our goal of providing up to 1,000 vaccinations a day."

More:Scammers intercept unknown number of Lee County COVID-19 vaccine hotline calls

Lee Health has cited the complexities of administering and storing the vaccines in deep freeze for their slow rollout. In a follow-up interview, Lee Health spokesman Jon Little said that about 80 percent of staff and volunteers said they are willing to get vaccinated. 

Antonucci also echoed statements made by other county officials and public health agencies, noting that supplies of vaccines remain limited for now.

"While we have been assured that more doses are coming, we ask for the community's patience as we roll out new access points across the region," he said.

Antonucci made his comments in his first news conference of 2021. Lee Health will also host a virtual town hall meeting at 11 a.m. Thursday on the organization's Facebook page.

More:'Be patient,' more COVID-19 vaccines on their way for future appointments

— Naples Daily News reporter Liz Freeman contributed to this report.

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