After months of lockdowns, mask wearing, and social distancing, beacons of light in the form of Moderna and Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccines came out of multinational laboratories to ease the darkness of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The vaccines have made their way to southwest Florida, affecting students, senior citizens, and healthcare workers alike.
Moderna and Pfizer’s unique mRNA-based approach to the vaccines is the reason for such quick rollout. By mid-December, the U.S.’ Food and Drug Administration (FDA) officially authorized use of the vaccines. Distribution follows a three-phase plan, as issued by the Center for Disease Control (CDC). As of February, the first phase—which limits vaccine distribution to healthcare workers, first responders, and those who are 65+ years old—is still being enacted.
Registration protocols vary across the country. In Sarasota County, the process has been streamlined via the county’s official website, scgov.net. Users are directed to register for vaccination by creating an account on the website. A call support center is offered but is staffed with only 50 representatives.
Users are contacted via call, text, or email when appointments are made available. Appointment slots are then scheduled on a first-click, first-serve basis. Those who miss out on appointments are sent future updates on availability.
Social studies teacher Scott Wolfinger has firsthand experience with the appointment-making process. Wolfinger and his family have been especially cautious when it comes to COVID-19 because his wife is at high-risk, so he jumped on the opportunity to get his mother-in-law vaccinated.
“Scheduling a vaccine took a lot of time and effort on our part as people who are technologically savvy,” Wolfinger said.
Wolfinger reached a point in which he, his two children, and his wife had seven devices shared among them that they were constantly refreshing at 3:29 pm every day, the time when appointment slots were being opened. Wolfinger’s son, fifth-grader Tyler Wolfinger, ended up securing an appointment for his grandmother in the middle of class.
“[Tyler] told the class he got the appointment and they all gave him an ovation. Everyone was excited. It was like we won the lottery,” Wolfinger said.
Though Wolfinger’s experience has been echoed by others, getting an appointment wasn’t laborious for everyone. Dr. Susan Shin-Harris is an optometrist who works at Tille Eye Care in Sarasota; her position qualified her for phase one of the vaccine rollout. She was able to schedule an appointment without any issues.
“I think it’s just luck. I just lucked out. Since then, I know others have had really hard times. The other doctors I work with and technicians and assistants we have, they have not been able to get vaccines,” Shin-Harris said.
Shin-Harris ended up getting the Moderna vaccine Dec. 31 at the William Little Health and Human Services Center, a branch of the Department of Health in Sarasota County.
Shin-Harris’ appointment fell in the 9 to ten a.m. slot. After the doors opened at 9 a.m., she was given a ticket and waited in the lobby before being called to the vaccination area with about 30 other people. Patients were each given a card that listed which version of the vaccine they were getting and the date of vaccination. She was then vaccinated and placed in a recovery room, where each patient sat for observation for 15 minutes to make sure all was well. She was given the follow-up date for her booster shot before leaving.
“The process was really quick,” Shin-Harris said. “The longest part of it was just waiting for the doors to open.”
Shin-Harris cited “a little soreness in the arm where they injected” as her only reaction to the vaccine, which “only lasted about a day and a half—that was it.”
Now, Shin-Harris volunteers at COVID vaccination clinics in Sarasota to give back to the community.
The observation period following vaccination may seem inconsequential to some, but it was significant for twelfth-grader Cecelia Plass, who received the Moderna vaccine Jan. 6.
Plass has been volunteering at Sarasota Memorial Hospital for four years, but her volunteering ceased at the start of the pandemic because of safety precautions. Her volunteer coordinator reached out to her toward the end of December, telling her that Moderna vaccines were available at Sarasota Memorial for volunteers who were 18 and older. She decided to seize the opportunity, but her circumstances were unique; in 2019, she had a severe allergic reaction to the flu shot. It was for this reason that she had to be observed for 30 minutes after her COVID-19 vaccine.
“I ended up being totally fine. When I got home, I was feeling fatigued. My left arm—where I got the vaccine—hurt a little bit. The next day, my arm was pretty sore, but normal with other vaccines. I felt a little feverish but it was nothing extreme,” Plass said.
Plass received her booster shot Feb. 3 and plans to return to volunteering as soon as possible.
That wish to give back to the community is shared by Bradenton-based pharmacist Renata Kulawik, PharmD. Prior to the pandemic, Kulawik worked full-time at Ellenton Family Practice Direct, where she managed medication and volunteered as a pharmacy school adviser. She now works there only part-time because of her volunteering.
Kulawik herself received the Moderna vaccine Dec. 31 through a drive-in program in Manatee County. All went well for her and her husband, who also is a healthcare worker. She got her booster shot Jan. 26.
Following vaccine rollout, Kulawik began working alongside other pharmacists through the CVS Caremark organization to distribute and administer the Pfizer vaccine to those living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Registration for the vaccine is different for those living in these facilities, as many of them—especially those suffering from conditions like dementia—are clueless of the situation. In those circumstances, previous arrangements for consent—typically on behalf of a family member—must happen before the pharmacists are able to vaccinate.
Kulawik’s organization functions as a mobile clinic; each day, they’re in a different place within an hour’s drive from Bradenton.
“I’ve been to Sarasota, Venice…What I’ve learned throughout the process is in our area, there’s a very high density of long-term care facilities. The need is very big here,” Kulawik said.
The one thing each facility has in common is their strict limitations on visitation, which makes Kulawik’s job hard.
“A lot of the people, they have a hard time making connections with the employees and don’t even have access to family members. It’s just so sad, so depressing,” Kulawik said. “Sometimes when you walk into a room and see the situation, you have to be strong and not let your emotions take over and do your job.”
Kulawik also recently began working as a pharmacist of record at Bradenton Research Center, where she helps with a research study dedicated to finding medication to help people who are suffering from COVID-19.
“I’ve been to many clinics and we’ve been immunizing hundreds and hundreds of people. I know there’s always stories in the media about people getting allergic reactions—if it happens to four people in the world, those are the four stories you’re going to hear about, not the thousands of people who are doing just fine,” Kulawik said.
Though miles and years of life experience may separate them, Wolfinger, Shin-Harris, Plass, and Kulawik all echo a similar sentiment of hope following their respective vaccination experiences.
“It’s a relief that [my mother-in-law] is vaccinated, but we still won’t feel fully relieved until she gets her second vaccine…That’s what everyone’s looking for—that moment where you finally feel safe. We feel safer for her, and as everyone gets vaccinated, that will spread to all of us. I think that’s something everyone who takes this virus seriously is longing for,” Wolfinger said.
“I feel lucky that I’ve been vaccinated so I’m at a reduced risk of catching it and being able to transmit it to somebody else, especially elderly patients. I wish there was a better system in place for them, but I’m very grateful to all the nurses that are working so hard to get these vaccines done,” Shin-Harris said.
“I’m incredibly excited to be in this early stage toward a solution. I know that it’s not a cure, it’s not going to totally prevent me from getting sick, but I know that it is a small step that’s going to help us get to the light at the end of the tunnel,” Plass said.
As someone who works behind the scenes of vaccine distribution, Kulawik acknowledges the difficulty of getting a vaccine, but offers up her own solutions.
“No matter what we do at this point, we’re not going to reach everybody because there’s so few appointments compared to people who are interested in getting one,” Kulawik said. “We need doctor’s offices to offer vaccines, we need pharmacies to offer vaccines, and when they’re ready, it’s just a matter of getting their hands on the vaccines and starting to vaccinate. We should focus on how we can extend number of facilities that offer vaccines—that’s the way to go.”
A version of this article appears in print on Feb. 19, 2020, page 9 of the Torch with the headline: COVID-19 Vaccination Rollout Begins in Sarasota Community.