Pinellas County health officials have begun offering the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine to first responders as they work to use doses before they spoil.
About 280 Pinellas County firefighters and paramedics received the vaccine Monday — the first day it was offered to first responders in the county — and more are expected to get them by the end of Wednesday, said health department spokeswoman Maggie Hall.
She said doses were also sent to Manatee County for first responders there.
“It’s a real rush to get vaccines in arms,” Hall said, noting that once the vaccine is thawed it must be used within five days. She said Wednesday will be the last day to provide shots from this batch of doses.
The Pinellas health department last week received about 10,700 doses of Florida’s initial batch of vaccines to be used by “strike teams,” part of a pilot program meant to get residents and staff of long-term care facilities vaccinated. Broward County was the other county to participate in the program, receiving the same number of doses.
By Sunday, the Pinellas strike teams had reached all 68 nursing homes in the county and vaccinated 6,678 people who wanted the shots, Hall said. She could not immediately provide information on how many residents and staff declined the shots.
With thousands more doses still available and time running out to use them, the department opted to provide vaccinations to frontline first responders like EMS and fire employees, Hall said. She said police were not included in this round.
“First responders are a crucial part of our community and health care system,” Hall said.
An October draft COVID-19 vaccination plan from the state includes a chart showing health care workers and long-term care residents and staff being the first priority for vaccines, followed by first responders and other essential employees.
Manatee County received 204 doses from the Pinellas health department with the stipulation that they go to frontline health care workers and frontline first responders who deal in health care, said Jacob Saur, Manatee’s director of public safety.
With the understanding that the doses had to be used by Wednesday afternoon, he said his county worked quickly to get workers lined up to get shots.
On Tuesday, Division Chief John Klinefelter with Clearwater Fire & Rescue was among the first responders receiving vaccine shots from Sunstar employees at the Dunedin Fire Station 62.
“I feel absolutely fine,” Klinefelter said later. “It’s been almost five hours and I have zero issues.”
He said he hopes people within his agency and across the county see people like him getting vaccinated and have more confidence in the vaccines.
Surveys of local fire and police departments conducted in recent weeks have shown that they, like other parts of the community, have mixed feelings about taking the vaccine.
Among paramedics and emergency medical technicians who work for Pinellas County’s fire departments and ambulance company, about 40 percent said in a recent survey that they don’t want to get vaccinated. Another 28 percent were undecided.
Klinefelter said he thinks fears will ease as the rollout continues.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration last week gave emergency authorization to a second COVID-19 vaccine, this one by Moderna Inc. Experts have said there likely won’t be enough doses for the general population until sometime in the spring.
“I’m excited,” Klinefelter said of getting his shot. “I’m hoping this is the first step toward getting back to what we consider a normal life. This is the first step.”
Florida’s latest data on COVID-19 vaccines shows nearly 50,000 people have been vaccinated in the state, although that data showed that only 3,840 people in Pinellas had received doses. The Department of Health did not immediately respond to an emailed question about whether there was a lag in updating the public data.
On Tuesday, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced that, now that “tens of thousands” of frontline health care workers and residents in long-term care facilities have been vaccinated, the state was ready to vaccinate the larger population.
DeSantis said elderly Floridians would be next in line to get vaccines, ahead of essential workers and younger people with underlying health conditions. It was not clear how elderly people would be prioritized.
Florida has recorded more than 1.2 million known cases of the coronavirus to date, and more than 21,000 coronavirus-related deaths.
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