Lake County, state officials working together on getting as many people vaccinated as possible.
Photos: Nicole Hamel
A few months ago, Betty Lemley arrived at her new doctor’s office in Leesburg carrying a cardboard sign reading “Will work for food” with the word “food” crossed out and replaced with “vaccine.”
“I caused quite a stir at the doctor’s office so I’m on their radar, but now I’m all set,” says Betty, a 77-year-old resident of The Villages. “I cried at my first dose. I was so happy, and today getting my second dose, I’m just overwhelmingly happy.”
Betty’s sign referred to the COVID-19 vaccine. She finally received her second dose on Feb. 3 after patiently navigating through the system and stumbling across a Facebook post stating that the vaccine was available–without appointment–at a nearby facility with minimal lines.
Betty immediately threw on the first clothes she laid hands on and jumped into her car without a shower or make-up to get there as quickly as possible, since she was already two days overdue for her second shot.
“Now that I’ve received both doses of the vaccine, I will still be careful and wear a mask when I go out, but I won’t feel like I have to be locked away anymore,” Betty says.
On the day of her shot, Betty was one of about 2,000 people vaccinated in the huge parking lot of Amazon’s future 202,000-square-foot distribution center on 50 acres at 7453 Republic Drive in the Christopher C. Ford Commerce Park off Hwy. 27 in Groveland.
The point of distribution (POD) is one of several drive-through locations the Florida Department of Health (FDOH) coordinated to administer vaccines to the first wave of people Gov. Ron DeSantis deemed eligible – those 65 and older and front-line healthcare workers.
FDOH officials say those drive-throughs are due to cooperation and assistance from city and Lake County officials, businesses, emergency agencies and many volunteers, including nurses and others throughout the county who jumped on board the vaccination train with a ‘let’s do this,’ mentality.
“We’ve been planning our vaccination sites and trying to put them in places our residents can get to them. We have several sites going and we just want to ensure everyone has the fair opportunity to get a vaccine,” says Melanie Chin, leader of the FDOH Lake County’s Groveland location.
Led by the FDOH, drive-through vaccine PODS were set up in areas that could accommodate high volumes of people without wreaking too much havoc traffic-wise.
And though the process encountered a few obstacles at the beginning, it was smoother sailing by early February.
The list of venues started with Leesburg’s Lake Square Mall, followed by a POD in the old Sears building. In Clermont, the first vaccination site was set up at the Cooper Memorial Library at Lake Sumter State College. Next, the Clermont Arts and Recreation Center.
Unfortunately, ongoing traffic concerns made it impossible for Clermont to continue after thousands of vaccines
That’s when Mount Dora city officials stepped up with a POD they set up in partnership with St. Patrick Catholic Church. By February, they too, had successfully given out thousands of vaccines.
Groveland’s Amazon vaccination site came together on a whim thanks to the quick thinking of Groveland Fire Chief Kevin Carroll.
“Groveland had been looking for a site to use for vaccines so in between two meetings I was having in the city, I had exactly one hour. I knew they were going to be paving the parking at the Amazon facility, so I came up here and met with Thomas Naumann, the foreman for the facility and asked if I could talk with him for a minute,” Chief Carroll says, explaining that when he got there, he was pleased to see the parking lot fully paved.
“What I said to him is something like, ‘I know this is gonna sound crazy, but they say you never know unless you ask,’” he adds, referring to the moment he set wheels in motion for use of the site.
Chief Carroll says in talking with Thomas, who is with Catamount Contractors Incorporated, Amazon’s builder, he explained Groveland’s need for a place where they could get a lot of people through, then shared a vision he had formulated on the spot regarding where the cars could come in and out, where five lanes leading up to the vaccine stations could be placed, where personnel could set up, and more.
Chief Carroll says Thomas liked the idea and immediately got on the phone with Amazon. In hours, he was talking to Shawn Virag, senior regional construction manager with Amazon operations in Florida.
Carroll says Virag was open to the idea, eager to get involved with the community, and agreed to see what he could do.
Attorneys with Amazon, Catamount and FDOH soon got involved, and by Jan. 26, a six-week agreement was drawn up. That very day, Chief Carroll, Thomas and a few other volunteers worked into the night setting up traffic cones and preparing the site. The very next morning, on Jan. 27 at 7 a.m., the site opened.
According to Chief Carroll, more than 12,000 first and second doses of the COVID vaccine were administered within six days with help from Groveland and Clermont Fire Department personnel and volunteers from various organizations including the FDOH, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and more.
“Every person that gets a shot lessens the possibility of exposure for anybody else.”
Each day, residents, including nurses, showed up to help where they could. Local restaurants donated lunches to feed volunteers.
On Day 6, many grateful vaccine recipients expressed awe of the whole operation, including Howard and Cathy Hockhheiser, Mount Dora winter residents from Philadelphia who arrived at the Amazon site to take the shot in the arm together.
Cathy, 66, overcome with emotion and in tears as she was vaccinated, did not have enough thanks for Chief Carroll and everyone there.
“The fire departments and first responders are the bedrock of so many things, and everyone here has just been great,” says Cathy, explaining that so many things were running through her head.
“I feel emotional about what we’ve all gone through this past year and so emotionally happy that maybe, just maybe, we are getting close to seeing the end of this; like this ordeal is almost over,” Cathy says.
Howard adds, “Every person that gets a shot lessens the possibility of exposure for anybody else.”
Leesburg’s Philip Menges, 71, with wife Kathleen Menges, 64, both got vaccinated. Philip says, “Although I think we’re still a ways off from seeing an end to the whole pandemic, the amount of people who have been vaccinated has to be making some sort of difference.”
Kathleen says, “It’s a step in the right direction,” explaining that although she feels a little safer than before, she and Philip will continue wearing masks, following social distancing guidelines and limiting outings.
“Even with the vaccine, you can still get the virus, but more than that, you can still be a carrier and give it to someone else and why would you want to do that?” she says.
Leesburg resident Frederick Breton, 80, there with his wife Sheila, 72, who was still recovering from shoulder replacement surgery just two weeks before, said he felt relieved to be getting the vaccine and was impressed with the site.
“I was with medical emergency planning in southwest New Hampshire, and we planned for this kind of epidemic and they’re doing pretty good there, but this one here is the best one from what I’ve seen and heard in the state,” Frederick says.
Chief Carroll is just as excited to be giving the vaccines as those getting them. He says he and all volunteers have been inundated with kind words. “We have been meeting the most amazing, grateful people. It’s just incredible,” he says. “Our goal is to get as many people vaccinated as possible so the pharmacies and doctor’s offices can pick up from there, in smaller masses, so eventually, we can get to total herd immunity.”
Chief Carroll also reports that after administering nearly 12,000 (and counting) vaccines, minimal side effects have mainly consisted of soreness around the injection site, lightheadedness, a few incidents involving low blood sugar, panic attacks and rapid heartbeats on-site paramedics feel may have been due to bouts of anxiety or something unrelated to the actual vaccine.
Still, Betty waited the recommended 15 minutes after her vaccine to make sure she would not have a reaction. She says she was less worried about side effects of the shot than getting COVID-19.
Betty says growing up, she was the very first child in her hometown to get the polio vaccine and that’s what she hopes people relate this vaccine to.
“Remember polio and smallpox? We eradicated them because of a vaccine and this virus is as serious, if not more so, than both of those, so we need herd immunity to get it under control,” Betty says. “It’s just about health; the health of our nation, the health of our people.”