A Publix grocery store and pharmacy in Fort Myers, Florida.
Jeff Greenberg | Universal Images Group | Getty Images
In Florida, hundreds of neighborhood grocery stores have become cornerstones of the state’s Covid-19 vaccination program.
Publix was tapped by the governor’s office in early January to manage admissions to seniors and other priority groups as part of a pilot program. In about a month, hundreds of thousands of people have come to the Florida-based grocer’s website in hopes of making an appointment. Starting next week, the Walmart and Winn-Dixie stores in Florida will be ready to receive vaccine shipments as part of the federal expansion.
In collaboration with Publix, the state tried to take advantage of the natural advantages of the private sector: the food chain already has trained pharmacists ready to make the right decisions. It is designed to be efficient as a company that relies on large shipments of food and medicine. It gives other vaccines, such as seasonal flu and shingles. The locations are known to many Floridians who live near a shop or are already filling out prescriptions or collecting milk there.
However, the partnership has become a lightning rod for the many criticisms of the wider adoption of vaccines. It has sparked a debate about how to dispense a scarce commodity fairly and efficiently, and it highlights a challenge that could be played out across the country.
“A vaccine desert”
With retailers playing a bigger role in the rollout of the vaccine, they could Widening the gap between wealthier, white communities with shops nearby and low-income, minority and rural residents who don’t. The technology used for signups has also created a hurdle for some groups.
Meanwhile, the emotionally charged messages on social media, where families looking to meet up and share feelings of deep relief and disappointment, will keep the conversation going.
“One of the advantages of using private businesses is having more locations, but one of the disadvantages is maximizing profits,” said Emma Boswell Dean, assistant professor of health management and policy at the University of Miami’s Herbert Business School. “They’ll be in the neighborhood where they can make money. So you have communities that have been hit twice. You’re a food wasteland. Now you’re a vaccine wasteland.”
The supermarket chain’s locations are a long way from many low-income and black neighborhoods across the state, according to an analysis by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. That creates another barrier for those who don’t have a car or don’t have time from work.
“It’s almost like we’re missing the populations most affected by Covid during the crisis, and that’s a lightning rod for a lot of people,” Dean said.
The vaccine rollout was already mixed. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, most of the nearly 13 million people who received at least one shot of a Covid vaccine within the first month after it was distributed were older, white, and female.
Nevertheless, Covid burdened black Americans disproportionately. Black Americans have died from Covid at 1.5 times the rate of white people, according to the COVID Tracking Project, which is run by journalists in the Atlantic.
accept a call
For the retailers, the vaccines are a way to make money and be good corporate citizens. They get reimbursement for every dose from the government or health insurers and can increase sales by attracting more foot traffic.
Meredith Beatrice, a spokeswoman for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, told CNBC that the governor’s office has contact with several retailers, but Publix was the first to answer the call and could quickly mobilize vaccination centers. She said Florida’s ability to forge new partnerships depends on the federal government’s vaccine supply.
In addition to working with Publix, Beatrice said Florida helped the county health department open nearly 80 vaccination sites, turned Hard Rock Stadium in Miami into a vaccination site, and forged new partnerships to bring the footage to places of worship in underserved areas.
Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous said in a statement that her dealings were only “one facet of the governor’s overall strategy”.
Find weapons to stab
Florida administered the vaccine faster than most other populous states. It was also quicker to prioritize his many seniors even if they had to wait for an appointment.
Almost 3.7 million vaccines were shipped to Florida early Thursday. Only CDC and Texas received more, according to the CDC.
Florida handed out 10,354 doses per 100,000 people as of Thursday. That puts it behind more than a dozen smaller states and areas like Connecticut and West Virginia and New York, but ahead of California and Texas.
Dean, professor of health management at the University of Miami, said the Publix partnership was part of Florida’s success. She said Florida’s decision to expand the permit increased demand and waiting times, but made it easier for vaccine administrators to find weapons to sting.
More than 100,000 doses have been given since Publix administered its first vaccines in Florida on Jan. 7. The demand is overwhelming. An average of 120 doses of Moderna are administered per day in each store.
It now has the recordings in 325 stores in 23 counties – more than 40% of the state’s nearly 750 pharmacy stores. Vaccinations are also offered in Georgia and South Carolina.
The government, not Publix, determines who can administer the shots and how many doses they get, Brous said.
“It’s supply and demand,” she said. “It’s back to more demand than supply, and that’s frustrating, I’m sure.”
This can best be seen by how quickly the appointments fill up. When Publix opened reservations for 48,900 appointments two weeks ago, the seats filled up in two and a half hours, Brous said. At any point that morning, there were more than 300,000 people in the website’s virtual waiting room.
Wait and hope
Making an appointment can make you feel like a lottery ticket. Vaccination centers have posted signs and recorded phone line records to warn customers that there is no vaccine excess and appointments are required.
Publix, Florida residents must register online. This means staring at a computer screen for hours, clicking refresh to fill out forms. Appointments are typically opened at 6 a.m. after the company has confirmed the number of cans and cleared slots based on that total. People wait in a virtual waiting room that manages the heavy web traffic. If they get over it, they’ll have to move quickly to sign up for a spot before they fill up.
The system has created frustration and access concerns, especially among seniors who are not tech-savvy and have no neighbor or family member to help.
Jeff Groob and his wife, Kathy, were among the hundreds of thousands who recently checked in just before 6 a.m. to get a place for his mother in West Palm Beach, Florida. They sat in bed in Kentucky in their pajamas, each going to the Publix website and staring at their laptops. Four other family members in other parts of the country did the same.
You were lucky. A few days later, Lee Groob drove a half mile to her nearby Publix and got her first shot.
“It was a great weight, a great relief,” said Kathy Groob.
For Lee Groob, 87, the pandemic was an isolating experience, only broken up by Zoom family calls, the occasional socially distant bridge games on an outdoor deck, and laps of swimming in an outdoor pool.
“I never realized how difficult it was going to be,” she said. “You deal with it, but instead of getting better, it gets harder.”
With the first vaccination, she feels closer to resuming the activities she enjoyed before the pandemic, as if she were flying to visit her family, whom she hadn’t seen in a year. But it also sparked some jealousy among friends who are still waiting for their turn, and felt that the support she was receiving gave her an edge.
“I think it’s just because she didn’t get it,” Lee said of a friend’s reaction. “She was online too and she was so desperate for it.”