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DeSantis expands vaccine access for 'extremely vulnerable' people under 65

Ron DeSantis
Posted at 6:02 AM, Mar 01, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-01 23:20:55-05

TAMPA, Fla. — Floridians under 65 who are determined by a doctor to be "extremely vulnerable" to COVID-19 now have more options to get vaccinated.

DeSantis signed an executive order on Friday that allows doctors, advanced practice registered nurses and pharmacists to vaccinate someone who is younger than 65 if they're deemed high-risk.

Julie Dang is split on the development after learning about it from ABC Action News. Her 21-year-old daughter needs constant supervision and is deemed high-risk because of a rare genetic disorder and her diabetes.

“I see the pros and the cons of it," said Dang.

While the vaccination expansion increases access to medically vulnerable people, like her daughter Tyanna, Dang worries about the overall supply. For weeks she has tried and failed to get her elderly parents vaccinated.

“I’ve gotten nowhere. I’ve gotten nowhere for the past three weeks," she said.

The order does not say what is considered "extremely vulnerable."

A new executive order signed by the governor Monday indicates the doctor must sign off on a predetermined list marking someone as medically compromised. The order reads: "such physician determinations shall include a statement that the patient meets the defined eligibility criteria established by a form prescribed by the Florida Department of Health"

On its website, the Florida Department of Health says some high-risk conditions could include chronic lung disease, moderate to severe asthma, serious heart conditions, people who are immunocompromised and people of any age with severe obesity.

The CDC says people of any age with certain underlying conditions, like cancer or COPD, are at an increased risk for severe illness. Click here for the full list of conditions.

Some Publix, Wal-Mart, Sams Club and CVS locations in the state offer the vaccine. It's unclear at this time what vaccine sites will participate in light of the executive order or if any conditions will apply.

ABC Action News reached out to the Florida Department of Health, the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the governor's office to find out where Floridians can find this form, the eligibility criteria and the process for signing up. We are waiting to hear back.

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County says they're telling people to check with their primary care doctors, saying the executive order says that physicians and pharmacies can provide those vulnerable COVID-19 vaccines.

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Rep. Carlos Smith has been vocal on the vaccination protocol change on Twitter.

“This is a really really important change for a community that has been left behind, that's really been desperate for access to the COVID vaccine," said Smith.

Rep. Smith does not approve of the way the Governor rolled out the change. The Governor quietly posted the signed executive order on his website, without any public announcement. By Sunday, most media outlets caught on. Despite that, Smith believes this is the right move.

"Up until this point, it's not been a question of eligibility. It's been a question of access," he said.

Previously, only hospitals could vaccinate those younger than 65 who are high-risk.

"But what's happened in practice is hospitals have been mostly prioritizing patients in their own network," he said.

Smith believes the governor needs to provide clear communication when it comes to changes, like this, that impact the health of so many.

“Everyone wants to get a shot at the shot, so to speak. But if they're really given you know clear expectations, a plan and clear communication, I think folks are going to be a lot more patient and understanding," said Smith.

He worries there will still be barriers when it comes to equity and the fair access of these vaccines to Black and brown communities.

“A lot of people in Florida are uninsured. They don't necessarily have a primary care doctor to easily get a doctor's note," he said.

DeSantis said last week that the state would open up vaccines to people under the age of 65 "sometime in March" barring any problems.

"Once we get to the point of the senior population where we start to see the demand go down, then we obviously are going to lower the age and get people, at a minimum 60, and then maybe even 55 right off the bat," DeSantis said on Wednesday in Hernando County. "It really is dependent on making sure we have the supply."

At a press conference Monday, DeSantis said: "We're gonna continue to obviously put seniors first. “

Of Florida's nearly 4.5 million people over the age of 65, roughly half have gotten at least the first dose.

Governor DeSantis said with the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine on the way, increased doses from Pfizer and Moderna and the opening of four new federal vaccination sites in the state, he doesn't anticipate a problem.

Doctor Jason Wilson, Associate Director of Tampa General Hospital's Emergency Department, warns we should never stay static when it comes to a vaccination plan. He believes this latest move by the governor makes public health sense.

"This executive order I think moves us to a pushing that envelop further and opening that door for even more vaccines more shots into arms as we move forward," he said.

The latest order was a relief to Darlos Wallinga a dance instructor to dozens of kids each week. She says she has a genetic condition and COPD, making her high risk.

"I was very excited because that means people like me, other people that I know that have other conditions that make them vulnerable we’re going to be able to get them just as soon as we can figure out how to log in and sign up for them," she said.

ABC Action News checked in with the major pharmacies currently administering vaccines. Publix has already updated its website, so those who now qualify can schedule a vaccination. But at last check, Winn-Dixie, CVS and Walmart still have not updated their websites. Walmart tells us it is working on updating the website. CVS tells us it is working with the state to come up with a plan. Winn-Dixie representatives have not responded.

You can use the CDC's vaccine finder tool at vaccinefinder.org to see which pharmacies near you have the shots in stock. Remember, you’ll need a referral from your doctor.

Johns Hopkins Center for Systems Science and Engineering