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How Florida, Tennessee and Oregon Are Rolling Out COVID-19 Vaccines

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right, so that is the news out of the White House this afternoon. But what is the view from the states? Well, as distribution moves beyond health care workers, there's very little in common from one place to the next. We're talking about residency requirements or prioritizing teachers over seniors. So we're going to spend the next several minutes talking through how things have been going around the country. And to do that, I'm joined now by Amelia Templeton from Oregon Public Broadcasting, Blake Farmer of Nashville Public Radio and Veronica Zaragovia from WLRN in Miami.

Hello to all of you.

AMELIA TEMPLETON, BYLINE: Hi.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Hello.

VERONICA ZARAGOVIA, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right, Veronica Zaragovia, let's start with you. You're in Florida, which was among the first states to start vaccinating seniors. And for a while, there were these photos of seniors camped out in these long lines that I mentioned, hoping to get a vaccine. Is it still that hard for seniors there to get vaccinated?

ZARAGOVIA: It's still quite hard. The chaos has included some seniors who are traveling here from other states. They've been driving down from New York, even flying in from countries like Argentina. The state's department of health - its own count shows that almost 50,000 people who don't live here in Florida have gotten vaccinated so far.

CHANG: Whoa.

ZARAGOVIA: And that's caused a big uproar.

CHANG: Right, so what's being done about that?

ZARAGOVIA: Well, now Florida is urging vaccine providers to ask for proof of Florida residency. But one big concern about asking for that proof of residency is that it may leave out low-income or homeless people. You don't have to show a driver's license, but many people don't have their name on a utility bill or a lease or something like that.

FARMER: You know, Veronica, that's interesting - this is Blake in Tennessee - because here, there's not a lot of checking IDs. And some of that is on purpose since many seniors might not have one. And the state wants to vaccinate undocumented immigrants, so the ID present a real challenge there. You know, it's mostly the honor system right now. But again, that's just here.

CHANG: Right. Right. It varies state by state. So in Florida, Veronica, how is all of this working out? Like, are seniors who live there and can prove that they live there - are they getting vaccinated?

ZARAGOVIA: Seniors are actually still confused and scrambling. For the most part, it's vaccines by Twitter. You need to be scrolling at all hours of the day or night to see if appointments open up...

CHANG: Oh, my God.

ZARAGOVIA: ...If they come up here or there. And I spoke to Annette Linder about it. She's 78 and lives near Palm Beach.

ANNETTE LINDER: I have been on the phone from 6 a.m. early in the morning. I'm just dialing everywhere that I could dial, and it was just awful not being able to get through.

CHANG: Let's talk about equity and fairness here because these have been issues on so many levels when it comes to vaccine distribution. And I want to bring in Amelia Templeton in Oregon for this because it sounds like the debate there is surrounding the fairness of putting teachers at the front of the line ahead of seniors, who are more likely to get seriously ill from COVID. What is the thinking in Oregon?

TEMPLETON: Oregon has been pretty quick to get vaccines into nursing homes and assisted living, but seniors who live on their own are still waiting. The governor had initially proposed vaccinating teachers and seniors at the same time, but then she reversed course and said there just isn't enough vaccine to do that yet. So teachers start this week, and seniors 80 and up will be the first to go later in February.

CHANG: Well, how has the governor there, Kate Brown, explained this decision?

TEMPLETON: It was about balancing the needs of different parts of the population, she said. Oregon has taken a uniquely sort of hard line on keeping schools closed to reduce community spread of COVID-19. And she's really framed it as, you know, families have been sacrificing for months to protect our vulnerable seniors. Now she needs to prioritize the needs and the health of kids and wants to use the vaccine to support a push to reopen schools.

CHANG: How has the public there been responding to this decision so far?

TEMPLETON: Well, there's been widespread outrage. You know, seniors are writing to the governor. They're saying, I'm tired of being holed up in my house, pointing out that they are far and away the most likely to die from COVID-19. Teachers have said even if they get vaccinated, their students can't be. And, you know, they could bring the virus home to their unvaccinated parents or grandparents.

CHANG: Yeah.

TEMPLETON: And meanwhile, the hospital association here is protesting that the governor has set too aggressive of a timetable for vaccinating both groups. They are warning people that whether you are a teacher or a senior, you may have to wait a long time to get the shot and saying, please don't call us and ask when.

CHANG: Yeah, let's talk about hospitals because a lot of the burden of getting people vaccinated seems to be falling on hospitals, even to vaccinate people who are not their patients or their staff. Blake, what's been happening in Tennessee?

FARMER: Well, you know, they've kind of been sidelined a bit here in the last week. They were using leftover vaccine they didn't need for their health care workers and calling in their elderly patients already in their systems. But that left a lot of people who don't happen to have a doctor in one of the big health systems at a considerable disadvantage. So now the state has said hospitals won't get any more vaccine unless they open access to all comers. So instead, in Tennessee, local health departments are really in the lead now.

CHANG: Well, how are local health departments there handling this huge scheduling task?

FARMER: Well, I mean, appointments have been kind of tricky because the local health departments don't know until almost the day of how much vaccine they're going to be getting from the state.

CHANG: Wow.

FARMER: So now most have moved to a system where seniors put their name on a list and just wait for a call. And that call, I'm finding, often comes with very little lead time. I talked to 86-year-old Carolyn Moser in a church parking lot that was being used as a drive-through vaccination site.

CAROLYN MOSER: The lady from the health department called me this morning and said, can you be at College Hills Church of Christ this afternoon about 2:30? And I said, yes, I can. So here we are (laughter).

FARMER: So there's one customer pleasantly surprised by this just-in-time system. Of course, there are many more feeling like they've been left out because they've heard nothing for weeks.

CHANG: Well, what about seniors who don't drive or who might need public transportation?

FARMER: Well, this is a serious concern. When it comes to equity, this last-minute scheduling favors those with some flexibility and, frankly, car keys. There's been some discussion elsewhere, like San Antonio, Texas, of finding a way to use Meals on Wheels maybe to get vaccines to people. But right now there's not a lot of energy going into outreach because the supply of vaccine is still so limited.

CHANG: Yeah. That is Blake Farmer in Nashville, Amelia Templeton in Portland and Veronica Zaragovia in Miami.

Thank you to all three of you.

ZARAGOVIA: Thanks to you.

TEMPLETON: Thank you.

FARMER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.