'Snowbirds' getting vaccine in Florida complicated

By Ben Conarck
Tampa Bay Times/TNS

TAMPA, Fla. - Every winter, retirees from the Northeast and Midwest head to the warmth of Florida, occupying seasonal homes and condos. But 2021 isn’t like years past.

This year, “snowbirds” are weighing a new consideration when deciding whether to flee their cold-weather states: Where am I more likely to get a COVID-19 vaccine? So far, that’s a complicated question in Florida, with little clear direction from the state.

South Florida hospitals, which have been given considerable leeway in deciding how they deploy vaccine doses in the last few weeks, have just recently pivoted from vaccinating health care workers to prioritizing the shots for senior citizens in the general public. The shift came after Gov. Ron DeSantis vowed during a press conference at a retirement community called The Villages last week that seniors would be next in line for the shots.

In Miami-Dade and Broward counties, that change in focus has also come with a new requirement by some hospitals: proof of local residency. That’s been the case at Mount Sinai Medical Center and Jackson Health System, as well as Broward Health.

But Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, told the Miami Herald on Tuesday that no residency requirement has been issued by the state.

“You do not have to be a resident of the county,” Moskowitz said in a text message. “Period.”

Moskowitz said the Division of Emergency Management will notify Florida hospitals not to require proof of residency for vaccinations.

Bob Vilensky, a Manhattan attorney who spends his winters in Palm Beach Gardens, said he would like additional clarity, and he’s not alone. Several out-of-state seniors have contacted the Herald with the same question.

Vilensky said he is dealing with kidney issues and is turning 65 in March, an age that would qualify him for an early chance at a vaccine in Florida. But he rents his apartment in Palm Beach Gardens, and spends the rest of his time in New York. That’s been his routine for the last 15 years.

“This year, because of COVID, things obviously changed,” said Vilensky, who used to fly down but drove to Florida this year, a long road trip he endured for the first time in 25 years of living part time in Florida.

Seasonal residents like Vilensky want to know where they fit into an uncertain queue that also includes workers at urgent care clinics, dentists, people with underlying conditions and others.

The state’s emergency and health officials have provided little guidance to the groups on the margins of the first phase of an unprecedented vaccine rollout, which started with “front line” health care workers and staff and residents of long-term care facilities.

Dentists, for example, learned unexpectedly on Monday that they qualified for the COVID-19 vaccines in that first phase after the state Division of Emergency Management clarified that they are considered front-line healthcare workers.

Before Tuesday, the agency hadn’t said whether those age 65 and older, who are the newest group to be included in the early vaccinations, must be full-time residents of the state. Neither had the governor.

Vilensky said he and his wife, who is also turning 65 in late March, know three other families facing similar predicaments.

“I’m the only one of these four of our families that came down this year,” he said. “The others were concerned about COVID and concerned about this.”

Dr. Steve Brandwene receives a Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine from nurse practitioner Hari Leon Joseph at the Research Centers of America in Hollywood, Fla., on Dec. 18, 2020.