MIAMI—On Wednesday morning, Delfin Alberto Rodriguez puffed on a cigarette outside a bakery in a shopping center in Hialeah, a predominantly Hispanic, working-class city with the fifth-highest number of coronavirus cases in Florida.
The 74-year-old Cuban American, whose surgical mask hugged his chin as he exhaled plumes of smoke, told The Daily Beast he was willing to wait another four to five months before getting jabbed with COVID-19 vaccine. The raspy-voiced septuagenarian explained that he was unsure about the potential benefits and possible side effects associated with getting inoculated for the deadly respiratory disease—despite mounds of evidence the vaccines are safe and effective.
“The world is upside down right now,” Rodriguez told The Daily Beast. “We are going through an absolute political, spiritual, and mental crisis. There is so much information out there and some of it is disinformation that you don’t know what to believe. On one hand, it’s magnificent that we have companies that created the vaccine so quickly. On the other hand, there are claims about Chinese involvement in developing it, about Bill Gates also being involved, and that they want to suck your brain with the vaccine.”
Rodriguez said he doesn’t firmly believe in the absurd vaccine conspiracy theories he’s hearing, which have been thoroughly debunked. But he would rather wait to see how it affects tens of thousands of senior citizens across Florida who are burning up automated phone lines to schedule appointments and camping out overnight at vaccine sites to receive the immunization.
“I, and many others like me, have decided to wait a little bit until the absolute truth becomes clearer,” he said.
A few feet away, another elderly Cuban American named Castro Piedra was less inclined to let wacky anti-vaccine propaganda influence his health. The 84-year-old fruit and vegetable vendor, who was selling bananas and avocados from the trunk of his car, said he spent seven days in the hospital battling COVID-19 earlier this year.
“It killed my wife, too,” Piedra said. “I don’t see how taking the vaccine is going to harm me. My sister got her first shot on Monday and she hasn’t felt any pain or anything.”
But Piedra hadn’t had any luck getting inoculated since Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order last month putting senior citizens next in line to receive vaccines after frontline healthcare workers. He tried to sign up for an appointment at Mt. Sinai Medical Center, a hospital nearly 16 miles east of Hialeah in Miami Beach that was the first health-care provider in Miami-Dade county to begin offering vaccinations to seniors almost two weeks ago, Piedra said.
“I called the automated number, but it only spoke English, so I had a hard time understanding that I just said forget it,” Piedra recalled. “I am hopeful I can get the vaccine at one of the local clinics here in Hialeah soon. The minute they call me, I’ll go so they can inject me.”
A Mt. Sinai spokeswoman did not respond to an email and phone message seeking comment.
Between vaccine disinformation and the lack of vaccination sites within city limits, Hialeah’s elderly population is in danger of falling woefully behind other jurisdictions in Florida that are already inoculating senior citizens, according to elected officials and city workers. Some blamed DeSantis for doing a poor job of communicating with Hialeah’s political leadership on how its constituents can have easier access to the vaccines.
This even though the city is a GOP stronghold that swung even farther to the right in November, playing a large role in boosting the president’s Hispanic voter turnout as he carried the state—and could prove key to DeSantis’ own future.
“If there is anyone who has the infrastructure to ensure greater communication, it would be the office of the governor and all the power that comes with it,” said Hialeah City Councilman Pablo Hernandez. “I certainly thought Hialeah would be prioritized because we have a significant portion of the population that is elderly and we have the most assisted-living facilities per capita in the state. From that standpoint, it makes sense because of the need present in our city.”
DeSantis has previously been accused of using the vaccine as a political weapon, most notoriously in The Villages, the Trump-crazed retirement community in central Florida. But there was little evidence of that in Hialeah.
Hialeah firefighter, paramedic, and fire union president Eric Johnson told The Daily Beast the city’s mayor, Carlos Hernandez, has been lobbying state officials to do more to bring doses to local senior citizens. “The governor has been 100 percent non-responsive,” Johnson said. “In Hialeah we haven’t seen enough, even though this is an epicenter with a very dense elderly population. It’s shameful.”
Spokespersons for DeSantis did not respond to requests for comment for this story, and Mayor Hernandez did not return messages left on his cellphone.
Even if state and local leaders were aligned, health experts said vaccinating large swaths of vulnerable elderly people in communities like Hialeah requires a Herculean logistical operation involving hospitals, government-run vaccination sites, and at-home delivery—coupled with a robust vaccine supply. The latter remains the biggest obstacle facing Florida and the rest of the country amid a widely-criticized rollout plan by the federal government.
DeSantis has also been criticized for allegedly not having a cohesive strategy for vaccinating senior citizens. For instance, he’s left the decision-making largely to county elected officials, hospitals, and local offices of the Florida Health Department. As a result, some health offices like those in Pinellas, Hillsborough, and Hernando counties have been inundated with requests for appointments and have run out of doses.
At a Monday press conference, the governor lashed out at a CNN reporter for asking him about the problems with the rollout.
“I think large vaccination sites will be needed and now they are talking about opening some in Miami-Dade, but not specific ones in Hialeah,” Dr. Mary Jo Trepka, an Florida International University infectious disease professor, told The Daily Beast. “I think we need to offer massive vaccination sites for elderly people who are able to go to those types of sites. For those who are homebound, you can use fire rescue personnel to reach those people quickly.”
Indeed, Miami-Dade Mayor Danielle Levine Cava said at a Tuesday virtual press conference that Miami-Dade and the Florida Health Department would convert existing coronavirus testing sites to also handle vaccinations for the elderly, including a location at Hardrock Stadium in Miami Gardens, a city roughly seven miles from Hialeah.
During the presser, the head honchos for two local hospital systems revealed bold plans to inoculate the 450,000 people 65 and over living in Miami-Dade. Over seven days beginning on Jan. 5, Jackson Health System planned to jab 14,000 seniors with doses, according to Jackson CEO Carlos Migoya.
“With that we are in line to do 75,000 to 80,000 a week,” Migoya said. “That would mean by late February and early March we could have all our seniors vaccinated... Even Hialeah. We want to make sure you are taken care of too.”
Also during the Zoom call, Mt. Sinai CEO Steven Sonenreich said the Miami Beach-based hospital system has vaccinated 6,000 senior citizens and has scheduled another 11,000 to get vaccinated over the next three weeks. He said Mt. Sinai was in the process of setting up a vaccination site at its Hialeah standalone emergency and urgent care center.
“We expect to grow our daily vaccination rate to 2,000 people a day,” Sonenreich said.
Trepka, the FIU epidemiologist, said the press conference provided some assurances that the vaccine rollout was really gearing up. “However, there is still uncertainty over how much vaccine doses we are getting,” Trepka said. “The amount of vaccines delivered to date has been pretty low.” As of Thursday, 384,223 Floridians have been vaccinated. As of Jan. 4, the state had received 965,000 doses, according to the Tampa Bay Times. Florida has more than 4 million residents 65 and over.
Dr. Thomas Unnasch, a distinguished health professor at the University of South Florida, agreed there was too much confusion and that the rollout was far from on course. “Gov DeSantis made the announcement [about senior vaccinations] and walked away without providing any help or guidance to the county health departments,” Unnasch said in an email. “No one seems to know how many doses of the vaccine they will be getting or when they will get them. It is difficult to make any plans in such a situation.”
The Florida Department of Emergency Management, which distributes and tracks vaccine shipments to health-care providers, had delivered 6,500 doses of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in Hialeah, including three hospitals serving the city’s residents and Mt. Sinai’s urgent care center, as of Jan. 6, according to spokeswoman Samantha Bequer.
But Shelly Weiss Friedberg, a spokeswoman for Tenet Health, which operates Palmetto General Hospital and Hialeah Hospital in the city, said both facilities were still currently only vaccinating frontline staff and physicians. “We have started planning for community vaccinations,” Friedberg said. “We are working with our state and local leaders, and we will keep everyone informed as more vaccine doses become available and we are able to expand vaccination capability.”
Hialeah Councilman Hernandez said Cava’s press conference gave him some comfort that the county was formulating a plan of attack—even if he felt like his constituents were being sidelined. “What still causes some concern is that in Miami Beach, they are distributing the vaccine, but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for Hialeah yet. The priorities should be established in terms of need, and Hialeah should be at the forefront because we are so adversely impacted.”
For Manuel Marrero, a 68-year-old Hialeah resident, any vaccination site in the city would be ideal. During a phone interview, he told The Daily Beast he signed up to receive vaccines at Mt. Sinai for himself, his 69-year-old wife, and his parents, who are in their nineties. “All I got was an automatic response that we are on the list,” Marrero said. “We have been waiting and waiting.”
He was discouraged from trying Jackson Memorial because he saw television reports of people who were turned away the first day of inoculations because the hospital system had overbooked appointments, Marrero said. “I am trying to see what the best route is,” Marrero said. “Time goes on and we are still stuck in our house.”
Marrero said he was also dealing with vaccine skepticism from his father, who lives with him but who could not be reached for comment.
“My dad is a hardcore Republican, and he’s been listening to a bunch of disinformation,” Marrero said. “I am definitely trying my hardest to convince him otherwise.”