Editor's note: Edits were made to this editorial after the print deadline. 

FLORIDA VACCINE CHAOS

THE ISSUE: Lack of coherent planning and communication for COVID vaccine distribution.

OUR OPINION: Both federal and state governments failed constituents.

There is nearly universal frustration, anger and fear among Floridians about obtaining COVID vaccinations — for good reason. Supplies are limited, there’s no state distribution plan for Florida counties, and both federal and state governments have botched not just the logistics but the communications.

The state says the federal government is not following through as promised. The federal government says state misunderstanding led to unrealistic expectations. We say hogwash. This is not a time for finger-pointing and blame. It’s long past time for everyone to work together on clear communication and a practical plan to deliver the lifesaving COVID vaccine.

Gov. Ron DeSantis has largely pushed off responsibility to Florida’s 67 counties to manage how vaccine is distributed. The result: a predictable hodge-podge of initiatives, none of which has stood out as a best practice. The mass vaccination site model, with first come, first served — used here in Citrus County by the health department — accomplishes the objective of administering as many doses as possible, but at tremendous cost to the over-65 folks who spend hours in line hoping to get in before the cutoff.

No county is set up for a massive by-appointment program. Even DeSantis admitted that it “feels chaotic — 67 different counties, systems and interpretations.”

That’s why it was good news to hear Florida’s Emergency Management Director Jared Moskowitz tell a legislative committee on January 14 that a statewide online appointment system is in the works, and “we plan to launch in the coming weeks.”  It is guaranteed to get heavy traffic, but what’s Florida’s track record with such projects? Abysmal, based on Florida’s problem-plagued CONNECT unemployment claims system.

An announcement leaked Friday that the state is quietly piloting a telephone-based system in a few large counties. No word on how that’s going.

This pandemic is a lifetime-first public health crisis that calls for best efforts from medical science, logistics experts and authoritative communicators. There currently are vaccines available and more are in the pipeline, so medical science is doing its part, though government could help ramp up production. Months ago there should have been an all-hands-on-deck effort from logistics experts in both public and private spheres to work out distribution plans. And from the beginning, there should have been straight talk from the government. Big fail on two out of three.

The most important principles of crisis communication are: be first; be right; be credible. As Aaron Bean, who chairs the state’s Senate Health Policy Committee, said, “If there is an orderly process that is clear and communicated well, most people are patient — they will wait their turn and know that new supplies are coming. ... But when there’s no information, and there’s no rhyme or reason who’s getting it, that’s the frustration.”  He also told Florida Surgeon General Scott Rivkees to provide the public with a clear direction about the state’s plans.

Until we hear differently from the state (and can rely on it) the system currently in place is all we have. As the health department here keeps saying, please be patient. And keep practicing the three Ws: wash hands, wear masks, and watch your distance.