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Fla. county paratransit drivers designated as first responders for COVID-19 vaccine

Polk County public transit officials said paratransit drivers have more frequent exposure to nursing home residents than EMS providers


CitrusConnection paratransit drivers in Polk County have been designated as first responders to receive the COVID-19 vaccine due to their regular contact with nursing home patients.


Sara-Megan Walsh
The Ledger, Lakeland, Fla.

POLK COUNTY, Fla. — Polk County’s paratransit drivers have a place in line for the COVID-19 vaccine as of Wednesday, while senior citizens grow frustrated trying to schedule appointments.

Citrus Connection’s approximately 40 paratransit bus drivers will be recognized as first responders by Florida Department of Health in Polk County, making them eligible to be vaccinated against the virus, according to Tom Phillips, executive director of Citrus Connection. This will bring them to the front of the line as supplies become available.

Phillips said his public transit agency has been advocating to county officials in recent weeks to have bus drivers, particularly paratransit drivers, bumped to the front of the line.

“Our paratransit drivers are exposed more in a day to nursing home patients than EMS in a week,” he said. “That’s a fact.”

Phillips said paratransit drivers make an average of seven to 10 pickups at nursing homes daily, transporting senior citizens to and from medical appointments. Nursing homes have been a hotspot during the pandemic as more than 40% of the county’s deaths have been long-term care residents.

“We are going daily to the epicenter of the epidemic,” Phillips said.

To date, approximately 25% of the transit agency’s 170 staff members have been infected by the virus since mid-March. It has caused the agency to reduce its service at times, according to Phillips. Staff members have taken paid time off to recover or care for a sick family member, part of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, 94 times.

This federal program ended on Dec. 31. Many Citrus Connection drivers have already expended their sick or vacation time, according to Phillips, in an effort to avoid contracting the virus.

Paratransit and public bus drivers are treated as essential personnel under the state’s COVID-19 guidelines. Gov. Ron DeSantis has focused the state’s distribution plans on seniors age 65 and older rather than the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines suggesting essential workers be given a higher priority.

Phillips said he doesn’t take issue with the governor’s decision to treat seniors first, but wanted to ensure the safely of his agency’s staff and the senior citizens they assist. His efforts were backed Wednesday by the board of directors, which includes Polk County Commissioner George Lindsey.

“This is an excellent and wise decision to treat them and put them in the first responders category,” Lindsey said. “It’s absolutely the right thing to do.”

In Florida, “first responders” have generally been defined as paramedics, EMTs and firefighters. It has not included law enforcement agencies such as Polk County Sheriff’s Office and Lakeland Police Department.

“It would be nice if we could get a dependable (vaccine) supply to work down the list of others who are equally exposed and need treatment,” Lindsey said.

As of Wednesday, 12,109 Polk residents had received at least the first dose of the vaccine, according to Florida Department of Health’s latest report. This is an increase of 842 people reported since Tuesday. Of the total, 732 individuals have completed the two-shot series. Both vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration require two injections to be fully inoculated against the virus.

Polk ranks 18th out of the state’s 67 counties for vaccinations, moving up a few spots, while ranking ninth in total population and total COVID-19 cases.

Hotline woes continue

Senior citizens are growing increasing frustrated as the COVID-19 vaccine hotline, a call center jointly staffed by health department and county employees, continues to be overwhelmed by calls, creating technical difficulties.

Davenport resident Bob Clausen, 77, said despite making several phone calls daily, he had difficulty reaching the hotline. Clausen frequently received a prerecorded Verizon message stating his “call could not be completed as dialed” or the call dropped.

“It should come to no surprise to anyone in the state and county, there’s a lot of people calling for this,” he said. “They didn’t devote much in the way of resources.”

Deputy County Manager Ryan Taylor told The Ledger that Polk officials are well aware of ongoing issues with the call center and they are “working the bugs out of it.” The main issue is the overwhelming number of incoming calls versus the 46-line capacity. Callers will receive Verizon’s error message when the circuit is overloaded.

“It’s a game of chance as there’s only so many slots for calls to come in,” he said.

Taylor said Polk is receiving calls from residents of other counties who are desperately seeking vaccination.

Seniors are encouraged to call the hotline (863-298-7500) to be put on a waiting list for vaccination when supplies become available. Clausen did try again Wednesday afternoon, and said he was elated to get through — even if he was told to wait several weeks for an appointment.

Polk County employees are working to create an online registration portal for vaccination appointments, which could be functioning by early next week.

Polk’s cases

In Polk, there were 476 new cases and five new deaths reported Wednesday, according to state agency reports. This brings the county’s totals to 43,839 infections and 868 deaths since the pandemic began in mid-March.

There’s been a notable uptick of 18 new cases in long-term care facilities reported Wednesday, bringing the county’s total to 2,793. The county’s correctional institutions also reported five new infections, totaling 549 since the pandemic began.

Hospitalizations continue to gradually rise with 29 admissions in the past day, bringing Polk’s cumulative total to 3,492 hospitalizations from the virus. Currently, there were 307 people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Polk on Wednesday, according to the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration’s online dashboard, an increase of eight individuals since Tuesday. Approximately 14% of the county’s intensive care beds are available for patients.

Polk’s daily positivity rate dropped to 12.8% on Wednesday, according to state reports, after previously hovering at 14%. The county’s rolling seven-day positivity rate last week was 14.4%. Polk’s positivity rate remains significantly higher than the state’s, which was about 10.2% on Wednesday.

Statewide, Florida reported 13,990 new cases and 174 new deaths on Wednesday, according to the health department. This brings the state’s total to 1,517,472 infections and 23,759 deaths from the virus. The state’s hospitalizations jumped by 430 on Wednesday to a cumulative total of 66,634. There are 7,582 people hospitalized for COVID-19 on Wednesday, according to the AHCA, down 131 people since Tuesday.

Globally, the virus has infected more than 91.8 million people resulting in more than 1.9 million deaths, according to the John Hopkins University Coronavirus Resource Center. The United States leads with more than 22.8 million cases and 381,000 deaths as of Wednesday.


(c)2021 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.)