Michel Bergeron and his partner Nancy Alexander were the first to receive the coronavirus vaccine Thursday, Jan. 7, at Central Ridge District Park from the local department of health, but for the couple it didn’t come easy.
Traffic stretched thousands of vehicles from the Beverly Hills park along County Road 491 to Beverly Hills Boulevard nearly 4 miles away. Hundreds of vehicles and their occupants were turned away when DOH workers counted off people in line to receive the life-protecting vaccine against the 800 doses the local DOH was preparing to dispense. The DOH had 800 doses but planned for 780 in case some doses were damaged or vials didn’t hold the advertised number of shots. However, it was able to distribute the full 800 doses.
“I’ve been paranoid (about contracting the virus),” Bergeron told the Chronicle after getting the vaccine shot in his arm. “I’ve been paranoid careful. I’m high risk. I’ve got COPD and I’m asthmatic.”
It was the third time the couple tried to get inoculated against the disease that has claimed more than 360,000 people in the United States and left more than 21 million infected. The number of dead in Citrus County from the virus is nearing 300.
Bergeron and Alexander, who live in The Villages, had tried twice before to get the vaccine in Lake County, but Sunday the vaccines didn’t arrive, the couple said, and this week they were hundreds of cars too late.
The couple parked by the Citrus County park’s entrance on County Road 491 beginning at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Jan. 6, and waited. They were determined to get the vaccines his time, Alexander said.
The DOH in Citrus County will again offer vaccines from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 9, at Central Ridge Park. The park will be closed the night before at dusk. The vaccines are only for those 65 years and older.
The Moderna vaccinations require a second dose in 28 days. The DOH in Citrus County is guaranteed by the federal government to get those second doses for each of the first doses the local DOH gives out, said Ernesto “Tito” Rubio, the local DOH administrator.
Despite getting the first round of vaccinations, Bergeron and Alexander said they will heed health officials’ warnings and continue to wear masks and keep their social distance. Not much will change, they said.
They know the vaccine reaches its best protection with the second dose.
“But at least you have some peace of mind (with the first dose),” Bergeron said. “I want to turn 70. So we won’t be burning our masks soon.”
The two will likely wait a couple months after their second dose before letting down their guard some.
“I’m paranoid,” he said. “And you never know.”
The DOH required recipients of the vaccine to remain at the park for 15 minutes to ensure no side effects. Waiting near the couple were Joe Hoehman and Maureen Peronne.
The couple got to the park at 6905 N. Lecanto Highway, Beverly Hills, at 3:30 a.m.
They thought they were lucky. They didn’t have to try and sleep in their Volkswagen bug overnight.
“We were going to be here,” Peronne said. “I don’t care if we had to walk all the way. I don’t care if we had to walk 150 miles, we are here.”
Hoehman said he knows the vaccinations are not a cure-all, but it’s the first step to protection.
“Now it gives you a little relief,” he said.
Most of the hundreds of area residents wanting the vaccines said the DOH in Citrus County was organized and the process went smoothly. But they also said they felt badly for those who came to the park in hopes of the vaccine but were turned away when there wasn’t enough for them.
Most interviewed by the Chronicle said a process by which people could preregister would have been fairest.
“Appointments would have been much better,” said Patti Pfeifer, 65.
She and her husband, Bud, arrived outside the park Wednesday night and pulled off County Road 491, but couldn’t sleep.
“It’s too dangerous on Lecanto Highway,” she said about parking on the side of the road.
“We think they’re doing an excellent job but they should have at least opened the park all night long,” she said.
The Crystal River couple said they have been following most of the safety rules to avoid infection.
“We shop at Walmart, but we avoid long lines. We also wear masks,” she said.
“We’re having fun,” she said, “but we’re still being careful.”
Allan San Martin, who was behind them, also came to the park Wednesday night.
“I got maybe 30 minutes total (sleep),” he said.
“I hate it,” San Martin said of the first come, first served strategy. “They should do something online. Everything is online.”
He said he came the night before to appease his girlfriend.
“She was a basket case (fearing the DOH would run out of vaccines),” he said.
Rubio said until the Florida Department of Health instructs him otherwise, his local DOH will follow a first come, first served process.
The problem with registering people is that if people don’t come, the DOH will have to throw away their vaccine.
“That’s the problem. We don’t want to waste the vaccine,” he said. "This stuff is platinum.”