MANATEE COUNTY – During an emergency meeting today, county commissioners met to discuss how to improve the process by which people 65 and older can sign up for a COVID-19 vaccine appointment. They voted unanimously to accept the new lottery-style system.
County Public Safety Director Jake Saur said that after issues with websites crashing and people unable to access the limited number of 311 operators to schedule appointments, a new idea was needed. The suggestion he came to commissioners with is to institute an ongoing registration system for anyone age 65 and older to enter their information to go into a lottery to get an appointment to receive a vaccine when they’re available.
Right now, Saur said the State of Florida has no COVID-19 vaccine doses currently to send to Manatee County, though 240,000 vaccine doses are planned to be received and distributed next week across the state. He added that none of those doses are guaranteed to be received in Manatee County.
Planned to launch at 10 p.m. on Jan. 7, the new website will ask people to enter basic information, such as their name, phone number and an email address, which is optional, as well as confirm that they are at or over age 65. The person will then get a reservation number, which will need to be kept, and will be entered into a vaccine waiting pool. As more vaccines are received by Manatee County, 311 operators will contact people at random in the vaccine waiting pool to set up an appointment. If a person doesn’t respond or isn’t available during the appointment period, their name will be returned to the pool and another person will be selected. Anyone who doesn’t have access to a computer will be able to call 311 between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday to enter the vaccine waiting pool over the phone.
The new lottery method of granting vaccine appointments will be ongoing and is expected to reduce public frustration when trying to book a vaccine appointment due to their not being a need to rush to sign up. It won’t be a first come, first served process like what the county has previously used with Eventbrite registration, which will now only be available internally to Manatee County employees.
Entering the vaccine waiting pool is not an appointment, it’s entering a standby waiting room for when vaccine doses become available. It also does not guarantee when an appointment time will be available.
Saur said that while the team administering the vaccines is ready and able to ramp up to giving out 2,000-3,000 vaccines per day with more sites than the current drive-thru vaccination site at Tom Bennett Park, the issue is a lack of vaccine doses. As soon as the supply line for vaccines is increased, Saur said he hopes to receive more consistent shipments and be able to distribute vaccines to the public faster.
While some Manatee County commissioners and residents expressed frustration that vaccine doses are available to everyone, not just county residents, Assistant County Attorney Bill Clague said that how the vaccinations are distributed is not up to local leaders. The Manatee County Department of Health is a part of the Florida Department of Health and is operated as a state agency located in the county. As a state agency, vaccines have to be distributed according to Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders, which allow for the vaccines to be given to anyone age 65 and older regardless of residency.
Saur said the goal for his department is to get as many people vaccinated as quickly as possible given the availability of vaccine doses.
A website address for the new vaccine registration waiting pool will be announced on the county’s vaccine website.