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Florida health departments plan for hurricane season, which includes COVID-19 vaccine storage

'Get vaccinated now. Let's not wait until a hurricane arrives,' Clint Sperber says
Pfizer COVID-19 vaccines stored inside an ultra-cold freezer at the St Lucie County Health Department
Posted at 10:46 AM, May 28, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-28 10:46:50-04

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — When emergency management centers activate for a storm, COVID-19 vaccination efforts will come to a screeching halt.

What happens to the vaccine doses and what happens if people are in the middle of a vaccine series are all new scenarios each county is preparing for.

"I'm very happy, going to start feeling very relieved," said Renee Thornton, who received her first dose of the COVID-19 Pfizer vaccine ahead of hurricane season.

MORE: Hurricane Guide

The last few months have been a roller coaster ride of emotions for Thornton.

"I had days where I couldn't get out of bed, so getting a COVID vaccine wasn't an option at the moment," Thornton said. She's been eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine since March, but because of health problems, she couldn't.

"I was diagnosed with cancer the first time in 2015," Thornton said.

She's developed complications with her immune system. Her doctor told her she had to wait till she was healthy enough to get the COVID-19 shot.

Like her, there are many others who may not be able to get vaccinated for the next several months, which will then be peak hurricane season.

"My hope is everyone is getting vaccinated now," said Clint Sperber, health officer for the St. Lucie County Health Department.

Like every county health department, Sperber is preparing for hurricane season in St. Lucie County.

"I would say approximately 50,000 doses per freezer that we could manage," Sperber said.

The St. Lucie County Health Department has two ultra-cold freezers for the Pfizer vaccine and generators keep the building running should there be a loss of power.

The health department in Okeechobee County has two backup generator locations where its Moderna vaccine supply can be stored.

Martin County's Health Department also administers Moderna vaccines. Health Officer Carol Ann Vitani said there is plenty of capacity to store vaccines and a generator to keep the freezers and refrigerator running.

"We'll continue vaccinating up until we're actually activated, and that's through emergency management. Once that occurs, then, of course, we will stop our vaccination and prepare for the storm approaching," Vitani said.

The Palm Beach County Health Department said the guidance will come from county and state leaders on when to halt COVID-19 vaccinations prior to a storm.

Sperber said the real unknown is when those vaccinations will resume.

"It's just looking in a crystal ball because you don't know. You don't know with the storm how bad it is," Sperber said.

For the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, it takes a good six weeks from first shot to full coverage and if you're in between the series, a storm could delay your second shot.

"We know again just history and some of our counties that have been devastated by hurricanes, I mean it can take weeks and weeks and weeks for power and just running water," Sperber added.

You can wait up to 42 days to get the second dose of the vaccine without any impact on efficacy. Traveling to another county that resumes vaccination efforts quickly after a storm may be an option if you're in the middle of a series.

"We wait until skies are clear and we would resume our normal operations at our health department as soon as we are able, and that would include COVID vaccinations," said Miranda Hawker, Health Office at the Indian River County Health Department.

Hawker said the health department has an ultra-cold freezer that can store up to 30,000 Pfizer vaccines. These days, with the vaccine supply readily available, most counties don't have to store large quantities.

"Currently we can order vaccine as we need it," Hawker said.

The silver lining is that the majority of seniors in Florida have been vaccinated, should they have to evacuate to a shelter. County health leaders encourage others to think about adding the COVID-19 vaccine to their storm preps list too if they are in an evacuation zone.

"I'd put that top of the list," Vitani said.

Thornton said she would have never waited if she didn't have to.

"It's always the next day, how you're going to survive the next day when you have a constant illness," she said.

Getting the vaccine now means weight lifted off her shoulders.

"Yes, it will be a big relief," she said.

Local health departments are still fighting vaccine hesitancy and health officers reiterate, the time to plan for hurricane season is now, and for the second year that includes factoring in COVID-19.

"Get vaccinated now. Let's not wait until a hurricane arrives, hopefully not, but hope isn't a strategy," added Sperber.

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Scripps National Desk
1:29 PM, Dec 17, 2018

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