Vaccines aren’t sitting in freezers, wasted in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, Surgeon General Scott Rivkees told senators Thursday.
State health officials have been battling the public perception of a slow rollout, which officials have indicated is a supply issue at the federal and production level. In his third appearance before a House or Senate panel this week, the fifth week of the vaccine rollout, Rivkees told senators.
“This narrative that vaccine is sitting in a freezer and it’s just waiting there, I assure everybody that all the vaccine that we have in freezers right now is allocated for prompt administration,” he said.
Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response Chairman Danny Burgess, a Zephyrhills Republican Senator, told Rivkees he has been “so communicative and helpful” during the pandemic.
But Fernandina Beach Republican Sen. Aaron Bean suggested Wednesday that hasn’t been the case, at least in Nassau County. During that day’s Senate Health Policy Committee meeting, he hoped to extract answers from Rivkees and Department of Health Deputy Secretary Shamarial Roberson ahead of a Nassau County Commission emergency meeting on the vaccine.
“The frustrating thing is there hasn’t been any communication,” the Fernandina Beach Republican said.
“The one thing that I want you guys to take away is that there is great frustration throughout the entire state over this vaccine distribution,” he added. “I know there’s a shortage, but I think we can handle a shortage if we understand it and it’s communicated.”
In Thursday’s meeting, the panel’s top Democrat, Sen. Randolph Bracy, called the state’s response “reactive” because it was ill-prepared for a pandemic.
Rivkees has largely been absent from the public eye during the state of emergency, which has now gone on 314 days. He frequently appeared alongside Gov. Ron DeSantis for press conferences during the opening volley of the pandemic, but he has only made a handful of appearances since he told reporters in April that social distancing would be necessary until vaccines become available.
The Surgeon General told reporters Thursday that he has regular calls with hospitals, health care associations and different groups, including chambers of commerce.
“I’m making myself available, answering questions anytime somebody has a question about COVID-19 or other health issues,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Rick Scott expressed frustration Sunday about a lack of response from Rivkees regarding questions about how Florida is prioritizing its limited supply of vaccinations as it arbitrarily deviates from federal guidelines.
“Vaccines must go first to Floridians, starting with our health care and front line workers and most vulnerable populations. This week, I asked for answers from [the Florida Department of Health] and more info on Florida’s vaccine distribution,” Scott tweeted
One frustration among the public has been reports of “vaccine tourism” from non-Floridians, and even non-Americans traveling to the Sunshine State to get a shot. Rivkees assured the panel that 97% of vaccine recipients in the state are Floridians.
Florida is not vaccinating tourists, DeSantis told reporters in The Villages on Tuesday. Some snowbirds live in Florida on a part-time basis and will be in the state for the next several months, meaning they should be vaccinated.
During the newly created House Pandemics and Public Emergencies Committee’s first meeting Thursday, Division of Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz blamed the federal government for low vaccine supply. He also railed against vaccine tourism as “abhorrent.” Rivkees agreed.
“If we are made aware of situations where things are happening where individuals are being vaccinated outside of the groups that are supposed to be vaccinated, this is something that would be looked into,” the Surgeon General told senators.
The Senate Select Committee on Pandemic Preparedness and Response is also new. Burgess said that panel wouldn’t hear members’ bills this Session, but members may file proposals that emerge from the committee’s work.
Florida has a limited vaccine supply, with about 250,000 doses arriving each week from the federal government.
Rivkees agreed with North Miami Beach Democratic Sen. Jason Pizzo that it would take about nine weeks to vaccinate the share of Floridians age 65 and older who want a shot. Increased production and new vaccine options, like Johnson & Johnson’s formula, could speed up that pace.
As of early Wednesday, 707,478 people have received a vaccine in Florida, including 61,151 people who have their booster shot.