Southwest Florida seniors want easier COVID-19 vaccination sign up

Liz Freeman
Naples Daily News

Kathrine Baumann had high hopes of getting her 88-year-old mother in Naples vaccinated against COVID-19.

Her mother, Patricia Woodrick, is partially blind and recovering from a broken leg that happened before Christmas. The injury brought Baumann to Naples from her California home a month ago. Now she needs to get back.

"I will have to depend on her neighbor," Baumann said. "How can you ask a neighbor to take her? She can't stand in line. It's a very challenging situation."

April Smith, RN, prepares a dose of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine during a vaccine distribution run by the Collier Department of Health at North Collier Regional Park.

The frailest seniors in Southwest Florida are finding it difficult to get the COVID-19 vaccine for a variety of reasons, from not having Internet access or not being fast enough to get the online appointments, to transportation hardships or physical limitations. 

"They are totally out of the loop," said Jacylnn Faffer, president and CEO of the Naples Senior Center, a nonprofit activities and caregiver respite organization with 1,400 members. 

The Naples senior center is fielding calls from members in their 70s and older who are at wit's end because they can't get vaccination appointments or don't know how to do it with the required online registration with the state Department of Health in Collier County, she said.

Faffer has spoken with state Sen. Kathleen Passidomo, R-Naples, on how the center can help but nothing has been decided.

“Somehow I think we are going to have to play a role,” Faffer said. “We need to be part of the team that is figuring this out.”

More than 100,000 seniors over 65 live in Collier while Lee County is home to roughly 240,000 people over 65.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized seniors for the vaccine but Florida is not getting the number of doses anticipated, Passidomo said. That's prompted seniors to scramble and seek the vaccine in other counties and led to public outcry that winter residents 65 and older should not be eligible to get the vaccine.

Why visitors and winter residents?

Vicki Freeman, 69, of Naples, asked the local health department why visitors are able to get the vaccine and said she was told it's a national program to vaccinate with federal funding.

"Their argument is legitimate, it is global, but if there is not enough vaccine coming in, either get more or rule out people who are not residents," she said.

Freeman couldn't get an appointment last week from the Collier health department but got on a lottery system being used in Manatee County. She's used the app, NextDoor, to get information on what's being done in other counties.

Frail elders in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities have been getting vaccinated with onsite visits from CVS or Walgreens in arrangements made by the federal government.

DeSantis said 230,000 seniors last week got vaccinated but Florida has 4.5 million elderly.

The state's COVID-19 website says a total of 648,353 people have been vaccinated, which includes frontline healthcare workers, nursing home residents and staff over the past month. In Lee, 23,174 individuals have been vaccinated and the tally is 9,928 in Collier.

State health officials in Collier are looking at options for appointments that don’t rely on online registration through Eventbrite, according to Passidomo, who recently tested positive for COVID-19.

She had not known until recently that appointments have to be made online through Eventbrite and said that doesn't make sense.

More:Collier Department of Health distributes COVID-19 vaccines at North Collier Regional Park

More:102-year-old Collier resident receives coronavirus vaccine

“They are looking at alternatives once they get more vaccine,” she said.

Kristine Hollingsworth, spokeswoman for the Collier health department, said the department is working on alternatives and details will be forthcoming.

“We are in the process of getting more access for our seniors and those who may not be able to register themselves,” she said in an email.

Passidomo would like to see places where seniors gather become vaccination sites, such as churches, which is in line with what DeSantis said last week the state is working on.

“My biggest concern is seniors living at home alone and transportation, people in their 80s and 90s,” she said. “How do we get to these people?”

Passidomo said the state last week received "a couple hundred thousand doses" and that's far cry from what's needed. 

“There is no easy answer,” Passidomo said. “People are going to have to be patient. I think it will only be a couple of weeks before it starts settling down.”

One idea is to add telephone registration in Collier but the health department is not set up for yet, she said.

That approach is facing its own challenges in Lee County where the health department is using the state's call center vendor, Tidal Basin, for seniors to get registered. The call center in Lee recently faced 1.5 million calls in a half hour and had to be shut down, according to county officials.

Cars park at vaccine stations during a COVID-19 vaccine distribution run by the Collier Department of Health at North Collier Regional Park on Monday, January 4, 2021.

Since last week, the county said Tidal Basin has outlined steps to increase call capacity and improve the performance of the reservation system, including:

  • Transitioning to a larger call center platform to provide better customer service and avoid dropped calls/busy signals;
  • Updating technology to ensure no callbacks get filtered out as spam and adding a more flexible interactive voice response system for quicker call handling;
  • Adding additional live agents to call center operations.

Lee officials turned to the call center after using a "first come, first serve" approach when it received a first allotment in early January that led to seniors camping out overnight and garnered national media attention.

The state health department's COVID-19 tracker website says 558,326 people statewide have been vaccinated, the bulk with the first of two doses. In Lee, 21,609 people have gotten doses and 9,202 people in Collier.

Vivian Seely-Troiano, 70, of Naples, tried to get the vaccine for herself and her 87-year-old husband with no luck. She considers herself fairly adept with the Internet but just couldn't progress with the online sign up.

"It's just kind of ridiculous," she said. "I know of one person who got it through Charlotte County. There's really no coordination as far as I can see."

Dr. Ron Garry, a geriatrician in Naples and past president of the Florida Geriatric Society, suggests the frailest seniors who are 85 and older should be allowed to log on first to online sites and be given adequate time to make appointments.

Garry argues a staggered sign up by oldest first to get appointments can help save lives since they are most likely to be hospitalized and have poorer outcomes.

“There is no perfect system to roll out this vaccine,” Garry said. “However, as geriatrician, one thing is clear, the frail elderly who don’t live in nursing homes are falling through the cracks.  Their advanced age and frailty prevent them from waiting in long times but they are also ill equipped to log onto computer systems that fill up quickly.”

Local hospitals have limited vaccine

Lee Health, the publicly-operated hospital system, expected to run out of its initial allotment of 10,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine earlier this week and doesn't know when a new shipment will arrive, according to spokesman Jonathon Little. 

Besides vaccinating its high risk employees. Lee Health had limited doses for seniors who are patients of Lee Physician Group with significant health issues. The physician practice was reaching out to eligible patients last week but the hospital switchboard was flooded with calls and issued an urgent notice for people to stop calling.

"With demand being significantly higher than the supply we must be flexible in a very fluid situation," Little said in an email. "As soon as we have more supply we will call patients who meet the current criteria for vaccination to schedule an appointment."

The NCH Healthcare System, the largest hospital system in Collier, had 1,200 vaccination appointments booked in 10 minutes last week through its website that froze or had errors for some seniors.

About 145,000 individuals were trying to get on the website at the same time and NCH is working with its  information technology department to address issues for the future, Ilia Echevarria, associate chief nursing officer, said during a virtual town hall meeting Monday.

“We are actively pursuing several solutions for the future,” Echevarria said.

NCH received an initial allotment of 4,900 doses of the Moderna vaccine last month and vaccinating is ongoing. She does not know when NCH will get a second allocation.

“We are hoping to hear something this week,” she said. “As we get more vaccine, we want to support the community.”

NCH is also among 53 hospitals statewide with deep cold freezers to store the Pfizer vaccine, said Dr. David Lindner, medical director of NCH’s COVID-19 response team.

More vaccines available

State health officials in Lee County announced Tuesday they have enough doses of COVID-19 vaccine to schedule 1,800 appointments for Thursday, Jan. 14, and Friday, Jan. 15.

The vaccine is only being made available to seniors 65 and older and frontline healthcare workers.

To schedule one of the appointments, the toll-free number is 866-200-3468. It will open at noon Wednesday, Jan. 13, for reservations.