- Associated Press - Monday, March 22, 2021

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - The number of Floridians eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine expanded on Monday as the state allowed anybody age 50 and up to get the shot, and the county that is home to the state’s biggest theme parks set the bar even lower by allowing anyone age 40 and up to get an injection.

With the loosening of the statewide qualifications, more than a third of Floridians were now eligible to get a vaccine solely based on age at all vaccination sites in the state.

Starting Monday, Orange County expanded the age eligibility a decade lower than the statewide requirement at its county-run facility at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Reservations were required for the drive-thru site at the convention center, and 7,000 appointments were filled within 13 minutes, officials said.

In expanding the eligibility, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said last week there has been decreasing demand at the convention center site. He said he had notified the state and felt he had the authority to expand eligibility in the county.

“I don’t feel like I have to get permission to be the mayor of Orange County from Tallahassee,” Demings said.

At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the opening of a mega-sized rest stop in Daytona Beach, DeSantis said he had concerns about Orange County “choosing to prioritize a healthy 40-year-old” over older residents.

“It’s not authorized,” said DeSantis, who criticized the county for not getting seniors vaccinated at the same rates of other Florida counties.

But Demings, a Democrat, said Monday that his goal was to get as many people in Orange County vaccinated as possible, and he wasn’t intending to take a political or partisan position against the Republican governor. He took issue with DeSantis’ characterization of the vaccination rate of seniors in Orange County. If the county was behind, it was because the state had picked vaccination sites without consulting local officials, he said.

“My goal here is not to make this a personal issue,” Demings said. “This is about the safety of the people in this community.”

Despite the expansion of eligibility, a union for some workers at the state’s largest employer, Walt Disney World, said it should also include hospitality workers.

“If the Hospitality industry is essential to our economy, then so are we as workers!” Unite Here! Local 362 tweeted.

Until the latest eligibility expansion, only people age 60 and older, health care workers, law enforcement, firefighters, school employees and people considered medically vulnerable by a doctor were eligible for the vaccines.

Orlando resident K.C. Cali, 58, was relieved and grateful to get her first Pfizer shot on Monday after not being able to see her two adult daughters who live in Colorado and Massachusetts for the past year. She already has made travel plans to go to Colorado and then New England to visit family later this year.

“The physical separation has been really taxing,” Cali said. “I feel weirdly like I was participating in a historic event. As a species, we managed to screw so much up, and I feel like with the vaccine, it shows what we can do.”

Florida on Monday reported having a total of 2,011, 211 coronavirus cases, an increase of 2,862 cases from the previous day. The state reported an additional 37 deaths for a state resident total of 32,779 deaths.

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