Southwest Florida looks to pop-up clinics to get COVID-19 vaccines out faster

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Private pop-up vaccine clinics are gaining ground in Southwest Florida to address staffing shortfalls at state-run vaccination sites and frustration with registration systems from the state and Publix.

To meet the growing demand, the state Department of Health in Collier County has recently created an online form for homeowners’ associations, faith-based organizations and civic groups that want to host pop-up clinics.

“All requests will be evaluated based on vaccine availability,” according to the health department. “It may take several days, if not weeks, to contact communities as there remains an extremely high demand for a limited supply of vaccine.”

Pop-up clinics typically are organized by private organizations to target a specific group, like seniors who don't have access to the internet, and to avoid registration delays with limited doses through the health department sites or through Publix. The Publix website for appointments will often freeze and minutes later say all appointments are booked.

Pop-up clinics by private groups usually arrange their own registration and scheduling.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has drawn sharp criticism for two invitation-only pop-up vaccine clinics in Charlotte and Manatee counties. DeSantis provided the vaccines to a developer who was a member of his transition team and who gave special access to the vaccine to residents of developments where he builds homes.

U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist. a former Florida governor and attorney general, has called for a federal investigation into DeSantis's alleged favoritism.

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Lee County vaccine clinics

The health department in Lee County has held three private pop-up clinics for a total of 400 doses for people 65 and older, spokeswoman Tammy Yzaguirre said.

Yzaguirre did not say how many requests the Lee County office has received or how many clinics are scheduled, but she noted in an email that it continues to get requests "from a multitude of community agencies, HOAs and other groups since we first received vaccine in December."

She added, "We do not keep a list and have informed all of the groups that at this time, we are focusing our limited vaccine supply at our RSW site (near the airport). The smaller clinics we have chosen to do are minimal, and we prioritized our outreach to focus on the underserved such as individuals that may experience increased complications or negative outcomes associated with COVID infection, individuals that may have barriers to obtaining vaccinations at the site and disparate populations."

The Lee County health office has formal vaccine agreements with Lee County EMS, the Cape Coral Fire Department and Estero Fire Recue.

Representatives of those agencies either did not respond or referred all such questions to the health department. Kevin Ruane, chairman of the Lee County Board of County Commissioners, also did not return a request for comment.

The county's two largest pop-up clinics vaccinated 112 residents in mid-January at Renaissance Preserve, a public housing complex in Fort Myers, and 250 people on Feb. 6 at Mount Hermon Ministries in Dunbar, Yzaguirre said.

Those came after the Lee County chapter of the NAACP sent letters to the department and Lee County government to reach out to those communities. 

The NAACP never received a formal response, nor was it instructed to make a formal request, said the group's president, James Muwakkil. “They did not get back to me, they just went about it on their own and got it done,” he said.

The smallest clinic was for 44 clients of Lee County’s paratransit service for the disabled in January.

North Collier Fire Control and Rescue District members provide  COVID-19 vaccines  at a pop-up vaccination to residents at the Pelican Bay Community in Naples on Friday, Feb. 26, 2021.

Collier County vaccine clinics

A handful of pop-up clinics have been held so far in Collier.

Under its agreement with the county health department, the North Collier Fire & Rescue District has administered nearly 1,000 doses at several clinics and is working with homeowners’ associations for more clinics. It has held clinics for eligible employees of Arthrex, a medical device company, at Avow Hospice and for residents of the upscale Pelican Bay community. Another clinic is planned for this weekend at a manufactured home community.

The county health department has provided vaccine appointments for the privately run Naples Senior Center to sign up their members and non-members who don't have access to computers to register for shots on the health department website.

The North Collier fire district on Wednesday held a second clinic for 400 residents at the partially gated Pelican Bay community.

The first clinic was held Feb. 26 at Pelican Bay’s community center, when 10 paramedics gave out 400 shots in three and a half hours.

Officials with North Collier and the county-run EMS, which has immunized people at several senior independent living facilities, say they are helping address staffing shortages at the Collier health department for vaccinations.

“We stepped in to help the health department because they clearly did not have enough people,” Dr. Robert Tober, medical director of both EMS and North Collier. “EMS and North Collier have been a big manpower supply.”

Jorge Aguilera, deputy chief at North Collier, agreed the health department does not have enough personnel to meet pent-up demand in the community.

Deputy Chief Jorge Aguilera   North Collier Fire Control & Rescue District

“They don’t have (the army) of people we do, so the army is really us,” Aguilera said.

The health department declined to comment about staffing and said everyone is working toward the same goal, Collier spokeswoman Kristine Hollingsworth said in an email.

“The Florida Department of Health in Collier County, along with our community partners, including local municipalities, Collier County EMS, Collier County Fire, and Collier County Emergency Management, share the same goal of administering vaccine to our community as quickly and as efficiently as possible,” she said. “By utilizing these partnerships, we are better able to serve our community as a whole.”

North Collier fire has 100 paramedics who can provide the shots and another 100 emergency medical technicians who can administer the shots but cannot draw a dose from a vial, Aguilera said. That’s based on an emergency rule adopted by the state in February.

“Our number one concern is we don’t want to over commit, and we need to keep our personnel from getting burned out,” he said.

Although Gov. Ron DeSantis this week opened eligibility to people under 65 at high risk for COVID-19 with a physician’s order, Aguilera said the fire district will stick to vaccinating seniors because it cannot deal with physician orders.

The governor's order also allows teachers, firefighters and law enforcement ages 50 and older to get vaccinated, which is being handled in Collier by EMS.

For all pop-up clinics involving the North Collier fire district, the private groups or homeowners’ associations must handle registration and scheduling, he said.

A maximum of 400 doses is an upper limit for a single clinic, based on the fire district’s experience with vaccinating that number of Pelican Bay residents at its two sessions, he said.

To date, 82,361 Collier residents have been vaccinated, with about half having received both doses, according to DOH data. In Lee, 118,651 residents have gotten the vaccine, with more than half receiving both doses.

Did you know? Pelican Bay residents receive vaccine at pop-up clinic

What’s coming up

On Saturday, North Collier fire is scheduled to vaccinate just under 400 residents of Landmark Naples, a manufactured home community of 459 home sites in North Naples.

Carolyn Masten, community manager of Landmark Naples, said the fire district approached Landmark a few weeks ago.

“I am over the moon,” she said. “I am just so happy we got picked. We were in the right place at the right time.”

About 900 to 1,000 people live in the manufactured home community of middle-income means, Masten said.  About 875 residents qualify because they are 65 and older.

Residents came by the clubhouse to sign up and get their appointment time; the shots will be given in the clubhouse with volunteers helping.

“A lot of our folks are in their 90s and don’t know how to use a computer,” Matsen said. “I’ve seen their frustration earlier (with online sign-up sites). It just breaks your heart.”

Aguilera confirmed the fire district approached Landmark.

“They have a really close-knit community and the ability to register their residents,” he said.

Pelican Bay also has indicted it will allow its community center to host vaccine clinics for other groups that don’t have their own facilities, Aguilera said.

The Naples Park Area Association, which neighbors Pelican Bay, would be first, he said. Talks began with the Naples Park association this week.

In a statement, the board for the Naples Park area association said it is in a “very active planning process” with the North Collier fire district to get its residents vaccinated.

It is on the drawing board for Pelican Bay’s community center to host vaccine clinics for other groups, said Jim Hoppensteadt, president and chief operating officer of the Pelican Bay Foundation, the governing arm of the community with 14,000 residents.

And Pelican Bay would be willing to help address how the vaccine is not getting into the arms of minority groups, he said.

“The more difficult answer is how to reach them and who are the other partners who can (help),” he said.

The Naples Park homeowners' association would be first to use Pelican Bay’s community center, although vaccinating its own residents remains the priority, he said.

“If we can provide more access to the vaccine, that is a great thing at the end of the day,” Hoppensteadt said.

He was pleased with how North Collier’s first vaccine clinic ran for 400 residents. More than 1,500 residents have signed up using registration on the community website. A randomized selection system is being used to pick who will get an appointment.

“From our standpoint, the coordination went very well,” Hoppensteadt said. “We got 400 doses used and none was left over, and we were able to vaccinate some 80- and 90-year-olds.”

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Civic groups are stepping up

One of the first civic organizations to start organizing vaccines for seniors is the nonprofit Naples Senior Center.

It started working with the county health department in mid-January because many of the center’s 1,400 members don’t have access to a computer necessary to sign up at the health department’s website or the Publix website for appointments.

The health department initially set aside 150 doses a week at its North Collier Regional Park vaccine site for senior center clients and is now  at 1,000 doses each week, Jaclynn Faffer, president and chief executive officer of the senior center, said in an email.

Jaclynn Faffer

“This includes nonmembers who have been referred to us and who have been added to the wait list,” she said. "We are slowly but surely working through the backlog of seniors in our community who want to get vaccinated.”

Since getting involved in registering seniors, the center has assisted

more than 3,000 seniors in getting at least their first dose of the vaccine, she said.

Faffer in January said she sent her criteria outline to help her clients to county leaders and the health department to pass on to faith-based organizations interested in helping their members get vaccinated.

The health department tweaked it and it is available on the department’s website for faith-based organizations to use, said Hollingsworth, the local DOH spokeswoman.

A request to the health department for a list of all organizations that have asked for pop-up clinics or other support to help seniors get vaccinated was sent two weeks ago to the state agency in Tallahassee as a public records request, according to Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for the local department.

What EMS is doing

Paramedics with the Collier County’s EMS have immunized residents 65 and older at several independent living facilities; it has not done any pop-up clinics with homeowners' associations, according to Noemi Garcia, deputy chief of training for EMS.

“All requests need to go through the department of health,” she said. “DOH will reach out to EMS, and we will coordinate any off-site vaccination clinics directly with the sites.”

Through the health department, EMS vaccinated residents 65 and older at Goodlette Arms, a subsidized housing complex in Naples, and residents of Bradford Square and Sandalwood Village, two senior living communities, Garcia said.

EMS is now working with the Parkinson’s Association of Southwest Florida to vaccinate its clients, she said. Since January, EMS has been vaccinating first responders and is working with the Collier County Public Schools to vaccinate the district's eligible personnel, she said.

In addition, EMS is providing the shots to residents of Everglades City and to residents of the cities of Naples and Marco Island through the municipal fire departments, she said. The vaccine supply comes from the health department.

“(EMS) is the vaccine lead at each site, and we have provided additional vaccination at the fire stations as needed,” she said.

On a regular basis, EMS is the lead agency providing the shots for the health department’s site at North Collier Regional Park with three paramedics and two employees for post-shot observation, she said.

Frank Gluck contributed to this report

What is a pop-up vaccine clinic?

A pop-up clinic is usually a one-time event where targeted individuals 65 and older can get vaccinated.

How many kinds of clinics are there?

Clinics can be organized by public agencies such as state health departments, municipal fire departments and EMS agencies.

Others can be privately organized by faith-based organizations, universities, nonprofit organizations and homeowners’ associations.

Where are the vaccine doses coming from?

Vaccine comes from the state or local health departments.

Who can get a vaccine at these clinics?

It depends on who is organizing the clinics. County health departments may target certain groups, like underserved residents or the disabled, and reach out to sign up eligible individuals. Private clinics are responsible for registering and scheduling their eligible individuals.

Who decides who can have a pop-up vaccine clinic?

In Collier County, learn more at http://collier.floridahealth.gov.

The health department has formal agreements with the North Collier Fire Control & Rescue District and with the county-run EMS for their paramedics to provide the vaccine. They are the only two agencies in Collier licensed by the state to provide advanced life support and whose paramedics can provide the vaccine.

In Lee County, go to http://lee.floridahealth.gov/. The department there has formal agreements with Lee County EMS, the Cape Coral Fire Department and Estero Fire Rescue.