Few eligible people were trickling in to a remote Federal Emergency Management vaccination site in South Florida on Saturday. So when some younger people without proof of eligibility showed up, workers at the site went ahead and gave them shots, thinking there was no danger of running out for the day.
Word quickly spread around town: The site in Florida City, just north of the Florida Keys, was vaccinating any state resident 18 or older. Get down there fast.
It was a rare — and ultimately short-lived — opportunity for younger people to get shots in Florida, which for two months has concentrated almost exclusively on vaccinating older residents, who tend to be more vulnerable to Covid-19. Unlike every other state, Florida had not released a priority order for making more categories of people eligible, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, leaving younger people in the dark about when their turn might come.
The state loosened its restrictions last week to allow people with certain medical conditions and a doctor’s note to get a shot and lowered the minimum age of eligibility to 50 for teachers, police officers and firefighters.
Those steps coincided with the arrival of FEMA, which opened mass vaccination sites in Miami, Orlando, Tampa and Jacksonville, each able to administer 3,000 shots a day. All four also have two 500-shot-a-day satellite sites that will move from one underserved community to another every week. The one in Florida City, a majority Black city, was a satellite site.
Things soon started getting confusing. At first, any doctor’s note would do. Then the state required a specific form filled out by the doctor. Later, teachers and day care workers regardless of age became eligible, but only at FEMA sites and pharmacies participating in the federal vaccination program.
Public anger mounted with reports that the state was steering vaccines to affluent, predominantly white retirement communities linked to powerful business people and political donors.
Still, demand seemed to be soft. Before Saturday, only one FEMA site — the mass site in Orlando — had ever used all of its daily allotment of shots, according to Marty Bahamonde, a FEMA spokesman. That was especially worrisome in the Miami area, which for weeks has seen persistently high numbers of new cases, including more transmissible virus variants.
So on Saturday, when word got around that the Florida City satellite site appeared to be relaxing its eligibility restrictions, hundreds of people flocked there — so many, in fact, that the staff started taking down names and asking them to come back on Sunday. By the end of the day, the site had administered 483 shots, its biggest day so far.
When the site reopened Sunday at 9 a.m., people were lined up around the block. By 9:30 a.m., workers and police officers were waving copies of Gov. Ron DeSantis’s executive order on eligibility and telling people who did not qualify that they would be turned away, said Julio E. Ligorria, 34, who had…