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Here’s what happens in Key West when the conch telegraph gets going

by | 01/06/2021

(Key West residents waited in line Wednesday morning thinking they could register for a Covid-19 vaccination. Photo courtesy of Gwen Filosa, Key West journalist for the Miami Herald.)

The text message popped on my phone at 2:44 p.m., Tuesday:They are taking names at the Gato building right now for callbacks for appointments for the vaccine. Rumor has it it could be as soon as later this week. Go now if you can. There are lines but moving quickly because they have a ton of people signing folks out.”

So I did. More to see what was happening and why than to get on a list. What the heck, it’s about three minutes from my house. When I walked up, there were half a dozen people and three Monroe County health department folks with clipboards. They took names, phone numbers and birth dates, said the health department would call us back to schedule an appointment and that, no, there were no vaccines available and who knew when there would be.

By the time I left Tuesday, there were a couple dozen in a neat line alongside the Gato Building. On Wednesday morning, practically before dawn, the line stretched down the block. Key West’s population skews old so it’s no surprise these aging baby boomers (65-plus) wanted to get on that Covid-19 vaccine list.

Mid-morning Wednesday, the health department figured out it needed to say something, which it did in a social media post that appeared on the City of Key West Facebook page and the Monroe County Emergency Management page. It pretty much went like this: For heaven’s sake people, there’s no vaccine for you right now. We don’t know when there will be. We aren’t taking names. There’s no list. Yesterday was a fluke. And, oh, that website and registration system we hoped to have by the end of the week? It’s toast. Maybe next week. Go home.

Though their version was longer, more bureaucratic and far less snarky, at least they offered it up. Given the jaw-dropping chaos around the country as public health officials and local governments try to roll out a vaccination program, I think our local folks did a decent job this week. They’re vaccinating first responders and health care providers; folks in scrubs were coming and going as old folks stood in the “sign-up line.”

Florida Keys reporter Gwen Filosa, who writes for the Miami Herald, wrapped up the Tuesday-Wednesday confusion with a story Wednesday morning.

There wasn’t even supposed to be a sign-up line. I asked the young woman who took my information if she’d been expecting this to be her job this week. Her eyes above her mask smiled and rolled a bit. “Not exactly,” she said, “but we do what we need to.”

Blame this on the conch telegraph. Every small town has one; those ubiquitous “my friend said” systems that share bits of gossip, news and interesting tidbits. Digitally fueled on social media and text messaging, who needs a backyard fence? They are efficient, usually correct and at their best — and worst — when there’s a news and information vacuum.

To be fair, the health department has done a decent job of posting Covid-19 information to its website with the occasional post on social media. But the “build it and they will come” approach to information sharing only works for news junkies like me. Regular people? Heck, they’re not spending daily hours scouring websites and social media pages for original content from such as the city, county and health department. They certainly aren’t signed up for the email press releases.

It was clear when I checked the health department’s website Tuesday that there was no such thing planned as a “sign up at the Gato Building.” Indeed, just the opposite. The web page was replete with “to be announced” statements and they were doing their best to provide information — and let folks know that more information would be forthcoming. But who besides me actually read any of that or knew the page was there?

There’s no vaccine available in Monroe County for us regular folks. There will be. No one knows when it will get here or how much. Once the health care and first responders are done, the over-65s get theirs. After that, no one is quite sure what the priorities will be. The health department’s website is where you’ll schedule your shots. How long? Think late spring before we’re all done. Maybe.

None of this is the fault of anyone in the Gato Building or any elected or appointed official in Monroe County, although, really, they could ALL do a much better job of communicating with their constituents. A little public transparency would go a long way. In the meantime, we wait. Patiently if we can.

I figure one of these days, I’ll stop by Publix and the pharmacist will check the database, look up at me and say “hey, you need your Covid shot. Want one?” And, I’ll roll up my sleeve.

Linda Grist Cunningham

Proprietor & Editor

Linda Grist Cunningham is proprietor and editor of KeyWestWatch Media LLC and Key West Island News. She is a nationally recognized legacy newspaper editor and publishing executive with more than 40 years of professional experience.

Cunningham is a veteran journalist who relocated to Key West in 2012, when legacy media proved itself too cumbersome to change with and adapt to today’s information world. She built her new media company business plan, packed up four cats (now the Cat 5s) and a husband and launched her digital solutions company for small businesses and not-for-profits. Key West Island News went live in 2018.

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