Steve Huard at the Sarasota Square Mall vaccination site.

Sarasota County's Covid-19 vaccine appointment system has received fewer registrations since it opened March 15 to individuals 18 and older than when it began in January this year. County officials say the reasons for the drop are due in part to the recent transfer to a new registration system, the added availability of vaccine supply at retail pharmacies, and fear about the vaccines.  Despite the state's supply surplus, and Florida's soon-to-be lowered age of eligibility to 18, people are hesitant to register—and many people are not showing up to their vaccine appointments. Nationwide, only about 60 percent of Americans plan to be immunized, according to an article in The Atlantic.

Florida Department of Health Sarasota public information officer Steve Huard and Sarasota County media relations officer Brianne Grant answered some of our questions about vaccine surplus, first and second dose numbers, what happens when someone doesn't show for an appointment and how to handle vaccine hesitancy in our community.

How many people are currently vaccinated in Sarasota County? Do vaccination numbers include Manatee County?

Huard: "As of March 24, more than 160,000 people have received at least the first dose in Sarasota County. That is 34 percent of our overall population and about 77 percent of our first priority age group, individuals 65 and older and frontline health workers."

Does the number of vaccinations include those who received vaccines at pharmacies like CVS, Publix and Walmart?

Huard: "This number does include those who were vaccinated at retail pharmacies, hospitals and anywhere vaccines are available in our community. The numbers are tracked through a statewide database called Florida Shots. The state pulls data on vaccinations on a daily basis and has reported Covid-related information available to the community every day. Updates on vaccination numbers are made on a 24-hour basis."

How many new individuals registered in Sarasota County's system, since it expanded to 18 and older on March 15?

Grant: "As of 11 a.m. on March 25, 29,261 new individual accounts have been made. This running total of new accounts is different from the overall account numbers used to tell people where they are in line. Once you register, it takes about a day or two for eligible individuals to see their account number. Right now, individuals age 50 and older will see an account number when logging into their Everbridge account. This is their registration number and their place in line. We've currently scheduled first dose appointments through account number 185,103. I like to remind people that if their account number looks high, don't be startled. We are receiving more vaccine supply and appointment notices are moving quickly."

Starting Monday, March 29, individuals age 40 and older will be eligible for the vaccine through the state, as well as 18 and older by Monday, April 5. Is the state registration system different from that of the county?

Grant: "The county registration system is completely independent of the state system. We do highly encourage individuals who would like to receive the vaccine in Sarasota County to register through the county registration system. I personally registered through the state system with a fake date of birth to see how it would compare to our registration, and [the state system] doesn't guarantee you will get an appointment with our clinics, including our Sarasota Square Mall clinic and Department of Health-operated pop-up sites. It only guarantees appointments at Florida DOH mega-sites, like the one in Tampa or FEMA. If you don't want to drive that far, you should definitely register through your county system.

"We do see people registering through multiple systems, and we encourage them to do that if they don't want to wait to get vaccinated. However, if they are able to secure appointments somewhere, they need to go into the other systems, especially ours, and delete their accounts or decline their appointment notices so we can give that appointment to someone else."

What do clinics do with a surplus of vaccines? Are people really coming in last minute to get them?

Huard: "We manage our vaccines so we don't have a surplus at the end of the day. We only bring what we need for the day. That's one of the key points of having appointments. Not only can we know how many people are coming in, but we can manage vaccine supply and know how much we need to transport to each site.

"On occasion, we do have individuals come in at the end of the day and request a 'leftover' vaccine, because they heard they can do that somewhere else. I know in Tampa they were offering end-of-day vaccines as part of a clinic's day, but we have never done that. Ours are by appointment-only. We've been able to manage this system well and haven't had to throw out any vaccines."

The county has reported seeing a 30-35 percent rate in declines and "no response" to appointment notifications. How are you better managing potential "no shows" or "no responses"?  

Huard: "We updated the registration system to make it one registrant per registration account, and that makes it easier for us to keep everyone in line and in place. There were times where two individuals, spouses for instance, were on one account, and one already received their shot at Publix or another pharmacy. But we would still expect two people to show up to that appointment slot. Once we fixed that, it made it easier for us to manage vaccines and keep people in place in line."

How quickly are people being notified that they have an appointment, from the time they first register?

Huard: "People are getting in a lot quicker as the priority age group is continuing to drop. As more supply becomes available in the community, or people find vaccines from other sources, we are able to move through our line of those waiting."

What about second dose numbers? Is it harder to get people to return for a second dose?

Huard: "Most people are aware and conscientious about receiving the second dose of the vaccine, and we've had a generally good turnout rate for individuals coming for the second dose." 

What is the county doing to combat vaccine hesitancy and misinformation about the safety of the vaccine?

Huard: "This is something the county is talking about every single day, trying to come up with ways to provide more information and messaging. We are thinking of ways to deliver the vaccine to younger members of the community who can't get to the clinic during normal work hours. We are also looking at different ways to promote vaccine safety. The science around these vaccines is solid and has been well-studied. Even though they were authorized under emergency authorizations, they are effective. We are trying to encourage the community to go out and get vaccinated so that we can put an end to the pandemic in our community and the world."

Are there other reminders we should know about?

Grant: "When you arrive to your second dose appointments, bring the vaccination card you received after your first dose. This shows us you've received your first dose and the suggested date of your second. The cards help speed up the process when you come in, otherwise we will have to look you up in the Florida Shots system.

"Another big thing to remember is replying to and confirming your appointment. If you can't make it, go ahead and decline the notice, but if you can make it, confirm it. This is helpful for us to continue to get appointments out to folks who really want them. You have the option to receive text or email alerts about your upcoming appointment.

"We've seen people chime in on social media, anxious about getting their second dose. No matter where you've received your first dose, you should always plan to return to that same location for the second one, whether it's a state pop-up, DOH clinic or otherwise. If you got the Moderna vaccine, you will receive an appointment notice around the 28-day mark. But don't be married to that time frame. We are tracking and know you've received your first dose, and we are prepared to remind you when to return."

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