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Polk County pivots to pop-up sites hoping to boost low vaccination rate: First up, a Bartow brewery

The county's vaccination rate at about 18 percent is below the state's current pace of vaccination.

BARTOW, Fla. — As Polk County struggles to convince more people to get vaccinated, the local health department is switching strategies. 

The county decided to close its portal for vaccine registrations on Sunday and instead pivot to weekly pop-up locations where people can get their COVID-19 shot -- no appointment necessary.

On Wednesday, the first such publicized site was dispensing vaccines at Front Page Brewing Co. near downtown Bartow.

“It actually went well,” said Toni Allen, who hasn’t seen her mother in two years.

Allen said she was hesitant to get the COVID vaccine, but when she saw a pop-up site had opened nearby with no appointment necessary, she decided to go for it.

“I want to see my mom for Mother’s Day,” she said, “So this was the only way that I could see her is to be vaccinated.

With Polk County's vaccination rate hovering around only 18 percent -- the state's is about 39 percent, the Florida Department of Health in Polk County shut down its appointment portal during the weekend to opt for the pop-up strategy. Once a week, they’ll bring vaccines to another part of the county at a location that should make it convenient for people to get.

“And now we are moving toward more of a walk-up vaccination event at locations across the county on various days of the week,” said Nicole Riley, a spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Polk County.

Public health workers concede the pop-up location strategy could be even more effective if or when the Johnson & Johnson vaccine comes back online.

That way, people who are showing up for their shots could basically be one and done.

Instead, for now, the folks taking advantage of the pop-ups will have to come back in four weeks for a second dose of the Moderna vaccine, but participating locations committed to staging that follow-up round of shots as well.

“Piece of cake,” said Joseph Smith, who has wanted the vaccine but had put off getting it because he was frustrated with the appointment process. “I think it’s a lot better, a lot easier, because I tried online going through so many portals.”

Allen agreed.

“I think that’s the best strategy ever,” she said. “I mean, it’s very convenient for anybody to come to have it done locally or in the area.”

The health department says it will watch the numbers to see if this new strategy improves the region’s vaccination rate, hoping it’s precisely the shot in the arm they need to get people motivated.

Their next scheduled pop-up vaccine event in Polk County on April 28 at the Lake Eva Event Center in Haines City with no appointments necessary.

Those who would still prefer to make an appointment can do so through the Lakeland Regional health care system, or any number of grocery stores, pharmacies and other private providers.

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