Vaccinating Florida's seniors at Miami's largest hospital

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Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Jan. 27, 2021, file photo, Irma Mesa, 74, receives the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the Jackson Hospital in Miami. Mesa, who hasnt seen her children or grandchildren since January 2020, got a second appointment for her 80-year-old husband, Angel. Now the couple will consider whether they can safely see their grandkids. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

MIAMI – The tiny glass vaccine vials are delivered to Miami's largest hospital and immediately whisked to a secret location, where they are placed inside a padlocked freezer with a digital thermometer that reads minus 76 degrees Celsius (minus 105 F). An armed guard watches outside the door.

The pharmacy staff at Jackson Health System often gets short notice on how many doses are coming — sometimes as little as 24 hours. As soon as the doses arrive, the pressure builds to administer them quickly, but the timing is complicated. The staff can thaw out only as much COVID-19 vaccine as the hospital can administer that same day.

The Associated Press was given exclusive access to a recent day of vaccinations at the system’s main hospital, offering a glance inside the hour-to-hour efforts that fuel the largest inoculation campaign in U.S. history. It is an anxious undertaking for both vaccine providers and Americans seeking the shots, and everyone has to watch the clock.

Appointments must be handled carefully — without overbooking but also with confidence that those who are booked will show up — to ensure that the fewest possible doses go to waste. Once mixed, the vaccine is good for only six hours.

“We don’t book any appointments until we know we’ve got the supply,” said David Zambrana, vice president of hospital operations. “We’re constantly checking the supply. You can feel the anxiety these folks have. We’ve heard people say, ‘You’ve saved my life’. They are coming with so much hope.”

Alette Simmons-Jimenez is part of a WhatsApp text group with about 60 women who keep a hawkish watch as appointment slots open in Miami-Dade, where Jackson Memorial Hospital is helping in the effort to vaccinate 465,000 of the county's most vulnerable seniors who are 65 and older — from shuts-ins to snowbirds.

Someone alerted her on a recent evening that Jackson Memorial would offer an “extremely limited” number of slots starting at 8 a.m. the next day. Typically, 1,500 slots fill up in 15 minutes.

Simmons-Jimenez, 68, was on her computer by 7:30 a.m., frequently refreshing her browser. She eventually snagged an appointment for herself and her husband for 12:30 p.m.