BEVERLY HILLS, Fla. (WFLA) — Citrus County, Florida, started distributing coronavirus vaccines to seniors 65 and older on a first-come, first-serve basis Thursday morning. The lines of cars to get into the drive-thru clinic was backed up for three miles on Lecanto Highway.
The site was scheduled to open at 9 a.m., and the official communication from the Citrus County Health Department advised people not to arrive before 8:15 a.m. Thursday.
Many seniors, however, arrived the night before and spent the night in their cars to make sure they had a place in line.
Nancy Alexander arrived at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, hoping to get the vaccine. She was first in line.
“We are thrilled, third time is the charm,” Alexander said. “We’ve been trying all week to get the vaccine and we’ve missed our chances because we were too late once.”
The Citrus County Health Department set up the first-come-first-serve system to give out 800 doses of the COVID vaccine.
Brad Stocker lives in Miami but has a second home in Citrus County. He drove five hours to get in line by 11:30 p.m. Wednesday. He estimates there were 80 cars already in front of him when he arrived.
“We went back to the house, put a mattress in the back of the car and went out, grabbed some food and some coffee and started sleeping there about 11:30 last night,” Stocker said.
He was able to get the vaccine Thursday morning. But people who showed up at 8:15 a.m., as directed by the health department, were too late and angry.
Philip Courter and his wife Gay were there before 9 a.m. when the shots were first being given out. They were directed away from the line by Citrus County deputies because people were already in front of them and there was no more vaccine to give out.
“We knew right from the beginning this was a ridiculous situation,” Gay Courter said. “I mean, do we really want our oldest members of our county sleeping in their cars?”
The couple became famous internationally after getting stuck on the ill-fated Diamond Princess cruise ship early in the pandemic. A massive outbreak of COVID among passengers and crew on board meant many ports would not allow people to get off the ship. The Courters were stuck.
“The worst ship you could be on since the Titanic,” Gay Courter said.
As a result of their experience, they really wanted the vaccine.
“We feel it’s our civic duty to get a vaccine and so we’ve been quarantining and isolating for almost a year now,” she said.
Now they will have to wait for another opportunity to get their vaccine, but they hope the county will adopt a new program to make it easier.
“It could have been far, far better organized and I don’t know what they are going to have to do from here on out,” Gay Courter said. “Plus, they picked a terrible site.”
Meanwhile, the Citrus County Health Department maintains the first-come, first-serve model is best for them. A second drive-thru clinic using that method has been scheduled for Saturday.
“First-come, first-serve is just something that works well for our county health department,” Public Information Officer Audrey Stasko said. “You know, we have over 60 full-time employees which is really not a lot. Getting together a registration system on our own, being able to call people back and dealing with the technology issues we saw other counties facing are all things we considered when making this decision.”
Stasko says the department will discuss what went right and what went wrong with the first day of vaccine distribution and make adjustments as they can.