UF Health, state Department of Health bring COVID-19 vaccinations to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

Vera Montgomery was one of several hundred people who received a COVID-19 vaccination at the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Gainesville last Friday. The event was a collaboration between UF Health and the state Department of Health in Alachua County. (Photo by Jesse Jones)

Courtesy of UF Health


Some scientists have likened the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic to a war requiring a marshaling of all available resources. The fight now comes to a battlefield best known for football glory — Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

The Florida Department of Health in Alachua County, using its own vaccine supplies and with the support of University of Florida Health, will launch the county’s largest coronavirus vaccination effort yet at the stadium’s Touchdown Terrace on Friday morning, on the north end zone-side of the venue. By the end of the day, 1,000 Alachua County residents ages 65 and over are expected to be vaccinated.

Unlike the football team, no walk-ons will be allowed — the free vaccinations are by appointment only for Alachua County residents who have already signed up through the health department. The department is currently in the process of sending people their invitations to schedule a vaccine through text messages. Those who have not signed up may register with the health department for future vaccination clinics at various sites around the county.   

Dramatically ramping up COVID-19 vaccinations as a rising tide of vaccines become available in the coming weeks and months will be pivotal in defeating the pandemic, not just in Alachua County but across the nation and the world. Thousands of people a day can eventually be accommodated at the stadium, UF Health officials said, should the county receive the necessary vaccine supply.

A common goal of county health officials and UF Health is a vaccination program that is equitable and reaches into communities most at risk, and UF Health has worked with community organizers to expand access to vaccinations.

“We need to look at this as a war,” said Michael Lauzardo, M.D., M.Sc., deputy director of the UF Emerging Pathogens Institute and a public health specialist who leads the UF Health Screen, Test & Protect initiative. “And so, when more vaccine becomes available, which it will, people will have more confidence if we can efficiently vaccinate people quickly and safely at scale. We have to think of it in terms of big numbers, getting vaccine to the people in the community who need it most as soon as we have enough vaccine. Nobody gets left behind.”

The stadium effort is led by state Department of Health in Alachua County officials, using their supply of vaccine and staff, and will be repeated periodically as supplies become available from the federal government and state. No schedule is set beyond Friday, and strict adherence to an appointments-only approach is necessary to ensure smooth operations.

Residents will receive the vaccine developed by Pfizer with its German partner, BioNTech.

The site will be staffed by personnel from UF Health and the health department, with UF Health providing many of its vaccinators. Those coming in for a vaccination should park in designated areas just north of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Please follow the signs along University Avenue for parking instructions, and special accommodations will be available for those who need assistance.  

Physically distanced seating will be provided, as everyone must be monitored for at least 15 minutes after getting their shot. The UF Athletic Association is playing an important role in community efforts to control COVID-19 and will be assisting with arrangements.

Paul Myers, the administrator of the state Department of Health in Alachua County, said this is a first step that will help his office and UF Health prepare for bigger days to come.

“This is a big milestone in terms of accessing a facility that is designed to safely accommodate tens of thousands of people,” Myers said. “We have over 269,000 people in this county, so we are scaling up our efforts to support our response. We have always planned to think bigger, and this is a great step toward community immunity. Vaccine supply is currently the limiting factor, and that’s out of our control. The aspects of our response that we can coordinate are being addressed, and UF Health continues to be our biggest ally.”

UF Health is building on a successful collaboration with the health department that began with UF Health Screen, Test & Protect and its robust testing and contact tracing program. Those efforts seek to minimize the coronavirus not just at UF but also in the surrounding community.

UF Health, following state and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, has already vaccinated more than 33,000 people in Gainesville, Jacksonville, and central Florida. Those include UF faculty and staff older than 65; patients ages 65 and older from throughout Alachua County who have accessed their electronic medical record in the past few years; residents under age 65 with highest-risk co-morbidities; and health care employees whose exposure to COVID-19 patients place them at high risk of contracting the virus.

The stadium isn’t the only venue where UF Health is working with the local health department. The health system helped vaccinate several hundred county residents 65 and older at the Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Gainesville last week and hopes to offer vaccinations at other churches in the future, especially on the east side of the city. More than 1,000 county residents will have been vaccinated by the end of this week at a drive-thru site at Hull Road, near the UF Cultural Plaza and museums, including Alachua County Public Schools employees 65 and older.

“In some places, there’s a lot of history in terms of access to medical care and vaccine hesitancy,” Lauzardo said. “We want to make clear to residents of all Alachua County communities that these vaccines are extremely safe and that we’re doing everything we can to ensure that, as supplies expand, everyone has free access to these lifesaving vaccinations.”

Alachua County officials applauded the move to expand vaccine access on a larger scale, a step that benefits all residents.

“We are very grateful that UF Health and the state Department of Health in Alachua County are teaming up for this great event,” said Alachua County Commission Chairman Ken Cornell. “We are so fortunate to  have some of the best minds in the nation continuing to innovate and refine our vaccination process.”

UF Health leaders note that, like a football team that pulls together for a big win on the (swampy) gridiron, defeating the coronavirus takes a collective effort that builds on the strengths of different team members.

“We each bring our best to bear,” said Lauzardo, “in this shared fight.”

  • “Oh my” as Mick would say, another touch down for UF Health! And Alachua County Florida Health Department is providing their allocation of vaccines now finally to those of us not associated with UF Health.

    More of my friends in Alachua County have received doses from other counties as being in the 70 year old range than those that have received it at the 80 year old range within our county.

    Hopefully my call will come at 69 this year. If not, I believe I will survive.

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