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New Strategy Needed As Demand For COVID-19 Vaccines Slows In Parts Of Florida

Two female health workers sit at a folding table preparing syringes with coronavirus vaccines at a Hillsborough County vaccination site.
Stephanie Colombini
Florida health workers and long-term care facility residents were supposed to get vaccinated before anyone else. But when the state opened up vaccines to anyone 65 and older, it made accessing the limited supplies even harder.

In order to vaccinate enough people to achieve herd immunity, Dr. Marissa Levine with USF Health says community leaders need to engage with those hesitant to get shots.

Health officials are seeing softening demand for COVID-19 vaccines in parts of Florida. It's easier to get appointments at many sites lately, and places that don't require them often experience short wait times.

Gov. Ron DeSantis assured this week that the state has ample vaccine supply despite the pause on administering Johnson & Johnson doses.

Dr. Marissa Levine, public health expert at the University of South Florida, said we're getting to the point where a lot of people eager to get a vaccine have gotten one or will soon. She told Health News Florida's Stephanie Colombini the state now needs to put a stronger focus on convincing those reluctant to get shots.

Talk more about this new phase we’re entering in vaccine rollout.

I do think it requires a rethinking of how to engage the remaining people in terms of meeting their concerns, answering their questions and helping assure that they have an opportunity to be vaccinated.

At this point, the general consensus is we probably need to get communities protected at the level of 80 to 85% of our population, partly because of higher transmissibility rates of the variants.

What we're seeing in Michigan right now, I think should be concerning to everybody in that as long as you have a large segment of the population who are unprotected, you're at risk for what are really preventable hospitalizations and deaths. And I think that's the key message here is now there is really no excuse. These are preventable.

And I hope that we all see that we have both an obligation and an opportunity to actually prevent suffering, to prevent death. But it is going to require all of us participating, or at least the largest percent.

The challenge is, because Florida is an open state, I think it’s important to say this because I don’t hear this said much, is we may be fueling the outbreaks in other parts of country. We know we have lots of people coming and going, particularly over the winter months, but I think that’s another reason why in Florida we have a special responsibility to reach that 80-to-85 percent.

I think that community effort is really important. But are there challenges, especially in Florida, where we've been open for business for months with no restrictions, and maybe some people, especially young people, feel that COVID isn't as threatening to their lives as it is? How do you convince them that, yes, you should get this shot, and we as a community need you to get this shot?

Well I think you really talk about an important group of folks who generally are not terribly amenable to being vaccinated in the first place for anything. The way I'd approach it, again, I think, is really understanding on an individual basis, what people are thinking, where their communication is from and what they're hearing.

Because we do know that right now, that's the group of people who are most likely to get COVID, hospitalizations are demonstrating, on average, younger people. And those folks are most likely to transmit it to other people who might be more susceptible to severe illness or death. So we're not out of the woods by any means, and young people play a critical role in that.

Are you concerned that thispause is on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine to take a deeper look at it after six out of the seven million or so people who've gotten it developed these rare blood clots – could that fuel hesitancy?

Well, so far, what we're seeing is one-in-a-million type events, which admittedly is rare. But if you're the one it's not rare. So my heart goes out to the folks who've been affected.

But the reason we monitor vaccines and the reactions afterwards is for this very reason, it’s both to understand what's going on and to make sure that people who are affected get the care and help that they need.

None of this is risk-free, getting a vaccine or deciding not to get a vaccine, those paths both pose risk right now. I would say vaccination still looks to be the best path for most people.

The good news is that these are rare events, and that’s what is being looked at, to make sure that that’s indeed the case and to understand if there is some additional information that would help us know maybe who shouldn’t get this vaccine but could get a different vaccine more safely. This is the stuff that we’re learning as we go and I think being transparent about that is really important.

So you're right, it could certainly fuel folks who are on a mission, perhaps, to prevent others from being vaccinated. But I think that the better approach is to be fully transparent. And to put it into context, in terms of whether this is rare or a more significant issue.

And there's a difference between being totally against getting vaccinated and taking more of a wait-and-see approach.

And the people who are very resistant, I don’t count them out, I think they require a personal connection. We really need to work with those people to understand what the questions and concerns are, and connect with them in a human way.

This is a mindset thing and unfortunately we’re really good a labeling people and being obsessed by our differences. When we say “vaccine hesitant” I think for many people that’s a label that results in lots of assumptions that may or may not be true.

So I’d like to see it very simply and say this is about people. Thoughtful people have real concerns and questions, and those questions and concerned should be answered, addressed, and as we find ourselves in these times of uncertainty, the most important thing is to be able to connect one-on-one and build trust and support.

We need to be here for each other because we’re all taking part in a very important community activity to protect one another from a horrible disease.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.