Frustration over the state's system for distributing COVID-19 vaccines reached Longboat Key Town Hall on Tuesday, with one commissioner urging a letter of protest be sent to Gov. Ron DeSantis' office.
Sarasota County has received 3,500 doses and began distributing to front-line medical workers and residents 65 and older in accordance with state orders. The first wave of online appointments went quickly. Manatee County received a similar number of doses and has experienced a similarly heavy demand for online appointments.
Census data from the American Community Survey in 2019 show about 46% of Longboat Key's population is 65 and older, not counting visitors and part-time residents.
“Keep in mind that they are really inundated with a lot of people who want this,” said Fire Chief Paul Dezzi, who is helping coordinate the town's response to the pandemic. “Keep in mind that there are a lot of people down there, more than normal, because of season.”
The age range for the first batch of vaccinations is what drew the ire of Commissioner George Spoll, who is 87. He said the governor lowering the age to 65 in his executive order, in contrast to the Centers for Disease Control guideline of 75 years of age, is flooding the system and keeping older residents from getting vaccinated.
“I have heard from many number of people who are totally frustrated by the injustice, in my view and theirs, that the governor has stepped aside from the CDC guidelines and extended the age down from 75 to 65, greatly diluting the ability of the seniors and those who are most vulnerable,” Spoll said.
Spoll said he would like the town to file a protest with DeSantis’ office.
Commissioner BJ Bishop also mentioned how some people on the island have expressed their frustrations of using technology to sign up for the vaccination.
“We have a large group of people that are over 75 that are not computer savvy, that are not tech-savvy,” Bishop said.
Steve Huard, Florida Department of Health Sarasota Health Officer public information officer, said DOH is working with Sarasota County Emergency Management to develop a call-in system for those who don't have access to internet to schedule appointments.
"We are working on a system to capture all those individuals and get them in line so when we open clinics in the future we can include those people," Huard said.
Town Manager Tom Harmer said the town has asked both Manatee and Sarasota counties to provide a vaccination site in Longboat Key, but the town would need also help from the counties to staff such a site. No such agreement has been made.
“We really need to have offerings here on the island for our residents so they don’t have to travel,” Harmer said. “It’s hard for many of them to travel, especially now that we’re getting into season.”
Currently, the vaccine is being administered in Sarasota County at the county health building at 2200 Ringling Blvd. and at a centralized location in Bradenton. However, as the county receives more vaccines, Huard said officials are looking to add additional drive-thru and walk-up clinics throughout the county.
"It's essential that we bring our services to every part of Sarasota County and that's what we want to do," he said.
Harmer said he anticipates the number of vaccinations available to increase, but he doesn’t know when it could happen. Spoll also mentioned the need for more medical personnel to physically distribute the vaccinations.
In Longboat Key, Dezzi said all of the town’s emergency medical service responders have received vaccines.
The town has taken many precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, including the extension of its mandatory mask policy to run through March 31.
Dezzi encouraged people to continue to wash their hands, practice proper social distancing by staying 6 feet apart and continue to wear masks.
Sarasota Observer reporter Brynn Mechem contributed to this report.