ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — One by one, members of the Hubner household were vaccinated — except for the one who needed it most.

Linda Hubner, 70, received the Pfizer vaccine six weeks ago and a family friend that lives with her received the Moderna vaccine three weeks ago. They qualified because of their age. But Hubner struggled to find an appointment for her 31-year-old daughter, Hanna, who has Down syndrome and is considered at higher risk of complications from COVID-19.

It wasn’t until the end of February that Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis expanded access for medically vulnerable people, making vaccines accessible through physicians, pharmacists and advance practice registered nurses. Starting this week, all Florida providers authorized to administer vaccines will be allowed to provide shots to medically vulnerable people.

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As a result of the February executive order, Hanna was able to receive her first dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at a Publix recently. Now, her mother hopes she will soon be able to return to in-person activities at Creative Clay, a local art center serving people with disabilities.

“She hasn’t had the social opportunities that she’s used to, which is really a continual, persistent problem for people with disabilities,” said Hubner, who lives in St. Petersburg. Once the family is fully vaccinated, Hubner looks forward to returning to her work as an early intervention teacher in person and getting visits from her grandchildren.

“We’re grateful that they’re available now but it’s not been easy,” Hubner said of the vaccines. “The disability community tends to be not prioritized.”

As vaccine access has expanded for medically vulnerable people, many have expressed hope and relief for a more normal life, after what they described as an often frustrating search for vaccines.

Throughout the pandemic, Chantelle Johnson, 51, has tried to practice social distancing with her boyfriend, despite living in the same household. The Wesley Chapel resident works at a restaurant and her boyfriend is a Publix employee, so the two try to keep six feet apart when at home. Johnson was born without some of the walls in her heart fully formed, and the right and left sides are reversed. Johnson has situs inversus, in which certain organs are in reversed sides of the body, and her liver is on her left side, instead of the usual positioning on the right side of one’s body.

Prior to the Feb. 26 executive order, Johnson called her doctors several times, seeking an appointment, until she received an email from one office telling her not to inquire again.

“I have literally been in tears over this,” she said. Now, she has scheduled a vaccine appointment at Publix and hopes essential workers like her boyfriend will soon be eligible.

Prior to DeSantis’ recent executive order, Mary and Harry Coyle had called a hospital and the health department, but no one was able to provide concrete answers about a vaccine for Harry’s brother, Christopher, who has Down syndrome.

Finally, earlier this month, Christopher received the first dose of a Moderna vaccine after a friend alerted them of availabilities at a local pop-up clinic run by Community Health Centers of Pinellas.

“He felt like now he was a little bit safer,” Mary Coyle said.

She said she’s looking forward to traveling again, whether in the United States or abroad, perhaps visiting family in Connecticut. Harry Coyle said he’s looking forward to going to restaurants in person again.

“We’ve been doing a lot of takeout,” he said.

As a person with Type 1 diabetes, Erica Rivera, 29, was able to receive her first Moderna vaccine dose last week at a Lakeland Publix. After trying to schedule appointments online one morning, she noticed an opening while glancing at her computer as she made breakfast.

“I was in, I guess, maybe disbelief, because I really thought that it was going to be awhile,” Rivera said.

She said she’ll have more peace of mind once her fiancé is also vaccinated, but the two have begun looking forward to visiting family in New York again, hoping to travel there at Christmas time. Rivera said she also looks forward to going sightseeing again and visiting amusement parks, as well as simply shopping at her local Trader Joe’s.

Until more people are vaccinated, however, Rivera will be exercising caution.

“I think it gives a little bit of peace of mind,” she said. “But I think that as far as regular day-to-day, I don’t think as much is going to change with being vaccinated.”

© 2021 Tampa Bay Times
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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