Before doors opened at a vaccination site in Florida City on Sunday morning, hundreds of people had already lined up to get a jab – many not even eligible under state eligibility rules.
Julio Liggoria arrived at 8 a.m. He said he saw about 200 people already wrapped around the block and counting. Many had seen reports that a day earlier, this vaccination site run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency had doled out doses to people who did not meet current state criteria, in part because of low demand.
So Liggoria and others showed up hoping to get vaccinated. He said that the mood was light and that people were joking. It felt good to socialize, he said, as they waited in line for something they all knew was a long shot.
By 10 a.m., he was asked to leave.
Liggoria told The Washington Post that authorities at the site began turning away people who did not meet the current criteria set by Gov. Ron DeSantis. Florida is currently vaccinating a group that includes individuals 65 and older, some health-care personnel, K-12 school employees and individuals deemed “medically vulnerable” by a doctor.
A video shared by Miami Herald reporter Colleen Wright shows police reading the state’s eligibility requirements over a megaphone to those waiting in line.
Marty Bahamonde, a spokesman for FEMA, said what happened Saturday was isolated.
“It was nothing nefarious,” he told The Post, adding: “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. The staff was just trying to do good work and get people vaccinated.”
Bahamonde said that on Saturday, some individuals who showed up to the site for a vaccine said they were health workers, but they did not have their identification with them. Instead of turning them away, and because the site had not been reaching its daily dose allotment, the staff vaccinated them.
Bahamonde said those individuals spread the word, which may have contributed to others showing up Saturday despite not meeting state criteria. Numerous local officials and reporters tweeted that the site was administering doses to any Florida resident 18 and older.
But FEMA said the staff at the site was reminded Sunday to stick to state rules.
“It just shows you people want the vaccine and people are really anxious to get the vaccine,” Bahamonde said. “But we do have to follow what the governor’s executive order is, because there’s a reason for that. So that’s what we were communicating to folks today.”
What happened in Florida City on Saturday is one example of the ways some have fallen short of eligibility yet managed to get the coveted doses amid a complicated national vaccine rollout. A 31-year-old in D.C. got his shot during a lucky grocery trip, because a pharmacist didn’t want to discard any doses. A pair of women disguised themselves as elderly – donning gloves and bonnets – to try to get vaccines.
On Saturday, the fourth day the FEMA-run site in Florida City had been open, 483 vaccine doses were administered out of 500. The first three days the site was open, Bahamonde said, it administered 93 doses, 193 doses and 318 doses.
State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Democrat who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said she does not have a problem with what FEMA staffers did Saturday, and believes there should be a system in place to ensure all available vaccine doses are administered.
“When the lines are so low to the point where we are not using our allotment for the day at some of these sites, it lets you know we should open it up,” Taddeo told The Post. “Our enemy right now is getting covid. It’s not following these rules to the point that days go by without using the allotted amount of vaccine.”
Before he was turned away Sunday, Liggoria said, he knew it was a long shot, “but I was going to try my chance.”
He believes he is technically eligible under the state’s current criteria – he said his over-40 BMI makes him “extremely vulnerable.” But because he doesn’t have a primary care physician, he hasn’t been able to get the required note from a physician to prove it.
He tried for more than a week to get an appointment with a physician, but the cost for the exam was too high. He also tried going to an urgent-care clinic but was told he wouldn’t be able to get the required note that way, either.
“These restrictions, they’re really preventing a lot of people from getting the vaccine,” he said.
He said he didn’t begrudge the FEMA staffers who may have given out vaccines to non-eligible people on Saturday.
“I understand why they did it. They’re seeing that there’s low demand and they have to do something in order for the vaccine not to go to waste,” he said.
Taddeo criticized the “red tape” involved with the governor’s order. She said she’s worried about individuals who are medically eligible but who may not have access to a doctor, some because they are uninsured, to get a physician’s note.
“It’s almost like when we make these rules, we don’t think of the most vulnerable and how many impediments there might be to get these things,” Taddeo said.
DeSantis’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Taddeo called for thinking “outside the box” to get more shots in arms. She suggested that sites have two lines: one for those who meet state criteria and another for people outside the standards who could get shots if they are unclaimed at the end of the day.
“I think people who don’t qualify would be OK with that, OK with waiting a little longer to take the leftovers,” she said.
She said if word hadn’t spread on Saturday, the site “wouldn’t have been able to use every one of their shots. That’s crazy.”