Getting the COVID-19 vaccine isn’t easy

(photo via pixabay)

It has been about a year since the coronavirus pandemic took the world and flipped it upside down. In the summer of 2020, states like New York and Florida became the epicenters of the disease, with thousands of COVID-19 cases and deaths per day. Scientists, healthcare workers and politicians quickly began pursuing a vaccine that would help end the crisis around the country.

The first COVID-19 vaccine to receive emergency approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was the Pfizer-BioNTech version on December 11, 2020. Three days later, the first batch of vaccines arrived at the Memorial Healthcare System in Broward County and Jackson Health Systems in Miami-Dade. The first person to receive the vaccine in Miami-Dade County was Grace Meatley, an ICU nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital.

On December 22, Governor Ron DeSantis announced the state would move forward with vaccinations, focusing on those age 70 and over, rather than young people, and health care workers. He said the vaccines would be targeted where the risk is greatest. In the weeks following the initial shipment of vaccines, Florida residents were filled with confusion as they scoured the internet and flooded hospital phones in search for answers and appointments. 

Hospitals put out vaccination appointments in the early mornings and they were gone within minutes. The process of getting a vaccine became a race that proved difficult for elderly populations across the state. As time went on, the governor reduced the age limit for vaccinations from age 70 to 65, and as of today (Monday, March 22) the age eligibility is 50. 

Various grocery stores, retailers and pharmacies were authorized to inoculate. In January of this year, Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava announced that the county would create a waitlist to alleviate people of the stress caused by scrambling to look for appointments. More recently, the county and federal governments have added pop-up vaccination sites that don’t require appointments in order to bring vaccines to underserved neighborhoods.

SFMN interviewed dozens of Miami-Dade residents about their vaccine experiences. Here is what they said:

— Helen Acevedo

Errol Alexis, 74, from Lauderdale Lakes, spent most of January attempting to obtain a COVID-19 vaccine.

After looking for weeks, he received a call from the Mount Sinai Medical Center in Miami Beach and was able to schedule an appointment. He obtained both doses of the Pfizer vaccine during February. 

Before scheduling the appointment, he said he called several numbers listed and visited official websites with the hopes of finding an open spot. 

He said he called four times and left voice messages. However, no one called him back for approximately three weeks. 

Although Alexis has now received both doses, he said he is still disappointed at the progress the state has made.

“The vaccination program in Florida is not working,” Alexis said. “They should have started from a higher age group.” 

Alexis said he has family in Brooklyn that was able to get vaccinated within the first weeks of January. Additionally, some of his friends from California have also obtained their COVID vaccine. 

He said he hopes local authorities focus on prioritizing more people from higher age groups. 

“They could have done a better job,” he said, referring to the vaccination rollout. 

–Amys Serret —

Loucia Harvell never expected to create a Twitter account to get her 94-year-old mother, Carmen Harvell, a COVID vaccine appointment. The 70-year-old was ecstatic after she triumphed in a process she described as “going to war.”  

“It was very, very complicated,” Harvell said. 

Harvell said a friend suggested she sign up for the social media platform to get alerts from Jackson Memorial Hospital about vaccine availability. 

Harvell closely monitored her phone for any Tweets. A few days later, after an early morning coffee run, she saw a tweet from @JacksonHealth.  

“My heart started racing,” Harvell said. “I went into the site and they started asking me all these questions.” 

But when she attempted to confirm an appointment, she received an error saying all appointments were booked.

Harvell returned to the website the following day and booked an appointment for her on Jan. 29. 

— Christopher Jennings —

Isel Blanco. (Courtesy of Isel Blanco)

Though she was initially skeptical of the side effects, a surgeon at Baptist Health Emergency Care of Kendall decided to get the Pfizer vaccine. 

Isel Blanco, 42, lives in The Hammocks and is mother of a 12-year-old son. When the first vaccines arrived in South Florida in December, she said rumors about adverse reactions echoed around her workplace. 

She took the vaccine because of her son. 

“Many tried to persuade me not to get vaccinated,” she said. “I got the vaccine because of my son. It was a way to protect him because I am so exposed to COVID-19.”

Her first vaccine was on Dec. 18. The second one was on Jan. 7. 

“I got vaccinated in my workplace,” she said. “It was a 30-minute process.”

Blanco said the only side effect was numbness in her arm the day after the vaccinations.

— Cristian Arteaga —

Though seniors were prioritized during the first phase of the vaccination program, the owner of an adult-care center said her residents have been struggling to get even their first dose.

Loriana Novoa, the owner of Centro Axis Adult Daycare in Miami, said she has been fighting technological hurdles and supply shortages to get her residents vaccinated.

Even though she’s been able to get some residents at the center inoculated, the process wasn’t easy. She said as many as four people, including her children, helped her schedule the appointments for the seniors.

“Now I’ve been able to get them almost all vaccinated, but unfortunately, I had to do it primarily through contacts that I have with people like the Archdiocese of Miami,” Novoa said.

–Humberto J. Mendez —

Shanea Rakowski, a 65-year-old food blogger, and her 67-year-old husband were able to receive both doses of the vaccine, but only after a direct appeal to Miami-Dade Mayor Daniella Levine Cava. 

“We live in Bal Harbour. We are both computer savvy, and we still found the computer kept crashing, and phone lines were busy whenever we tried to get an appointment,” she said. 

Rakowski recalled a specific experience that was especially irritating and led to a lot of sleepless nights.

“One day we were told they would start taking appointments at 11, but they were already sold out because the site went up at nine in the morning without notice,” she said. 

When Rakowski and her husband finally scored an appointment on Jan. 9 at the Hard Rock Stadium, they made sure to arrive 30 minutes before, just like they were told. 

“We made the mistake of listening. We had a four-hour wait in our car until vaccinated,” she said.

Rakowski described the experience as cruel, inconsiderate and disorganized, especially for seniors. 

“I saw no toilet facilities except for one to two porta-potties. Some people even ran out of gas. When we finally got our shot we were given a card with no second appointment. The stress continued,” she said. 

It took Rakowski and her husband two weeks after their first appointment to finally have someone return their call so they could set up the next one. The office of Mayor Daniella Levine Cava was the only one to reply. 

Cava personally listened to her concerns and told her they would have someone reach out to her to help set up an appointment. Rakowski waited for the call, but it didn’t come.

“Four days before we were supposed to get an appointment I got a call that said spam and only rang once, then disconnected. It wasn’t until three days before that we heard back saying to come on Jan. 30 for an 11:30 a.m. vaccine,” she said. 

Despite another wait time of 2.5 hours, Rakowski said she is grateful for the opportunity to be vaccinated and hopes it becomes easier for others.

“I have been trying to help friends get their vaccine. Every time I see a tweet or a newspaper article with phone numbers and emails I pass them on,” she said.

— Katerina Rodriguez —

Salome Ramirez, a 65-year-old resident in Cutler Bay, said she struggled to make an appointment for her vaccination because of her lack of computer knowledge and technical problems with multiple vaccination websites.

“It’s been difficult for me because I’m not very good with technology,” Ramirez said in Spanish. “I had to ask my daughter to help me, and she had trouble making an appointment.”

Ramirez said she and her daughter tried to register for Ramirez’s vaccination appointment through Publix’s website but encountered long loading times and some website crashes.

“It took a while, and it was annoying,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said her daughter was able to make an appointment for her first shot through Jackson Memorial Hospital’s website.

“That one worked faster and better for us, and after that, I got both shots,” Ramirez said.

Ramirez said she was successfully vaccinated with both shots of the Pfizer vaccine, receiving her first shot on Jan. 15 and her second shot on Feb. 5.

–William Sanchez