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FILE - In this Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2021 photo, Resident Sabeth Ramirez, 80, center, waits in line with others for the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine at the The Palace assisted living facility in Coral Gables, Fla. Florida was one of the first states to throw open vaccine eligibility to members of the general public over 65, leading to rumors that tourists and day-trippers are swooping into the state solely for the jab. Gov. Ron DeSantis said stories of the rich flying to Florida, getting vaccinated and returning home are overblown. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

Editor's note: This story was updated to clarify who now qualifies for vaccinations in Hamilton County.

Don Godsey, 76, is looking forward to getting his first COVID-19 vaccination shot next Tuesday in Chattanooga, but his wife, Joyce, doesn't yet qualify for the vaccination in Hamilton County, where it is reserved for those 75 and older.

The Godseys are trying to arrange her vaccination in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the couple owns a condominium, and where the age requirement for a vaccination is 65.

"Once she can get an appointment, we're going to be flying down there to get the shot," said Godsey, who founded the promotional products company Gold Bond Inc. in Hixson. "You do not have to be a Florida resident. That is the reason a lot of people are going to Florida."

The piecemeal and unpredictable rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and the widely variable guidelines about who qualifies from state to state are prompting people to cross borders and travel long distances in search of the vaccine.

(READ MORE: High expectations, limited support leave state and local health departments feeling the brunt of COVID-19 vaccine frustration)

The Wall Street Journal has reported that people are flocking to Florida to get COVID-19 vaccinations, driven largely by Florida's 65-and-up vaccination guideline that includes non-residents.

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Chasing COVID-19 shots

In Hamilton County, vaccinations are being made by appointment for those 75 years old and up and for those unable to live on their own, or those who are first responders or health care workers. Last week, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services asked all states to begin vaccinating people age 65 and older, but not all have been able to do so.

Sue Evans and her husband drove 110 miles for their first COVID-19 vaccinations on Monday, from their home in Murphy, North Carolina, to a Publix supermarket in Rome, Georgia.

"We're so excited," said Evans, 67, as she and her husband, 69, made their way home on Monday afternoon. "We don't really even get out of our house that much. We avoid people like crazy, and it's bizarre. Just knowing we might not have to do all that junk is so exciting."

Though being over 65 qualified them for shots in North Carolina, Sue Evans could not find any available appointments there for herself and her husband, Carl.

"Where we live in Murphy, we see all our doctors down in Georgia, in Blue Ridge and Blairsville," said Evans, who moved to Murphy from Chattanooga a year ago after retirement. "I had just seen a doctor, and she had said, 'You're going to have to come to Georgia to get the shot.'"

She and her husband initially had an appointment at a Publix in Canton, Georgia, about 80 miles from Murphy, but were told they had to be Georgia residents, Evans said. In Rome, that wasn't an issue.

"That was kind of weird," Evans said. "Publix in Canton said no, Publix in Rome didn't care."

On their websites, many state health departments caution people that vaccine supplies fall far short of demand, and appointments may be hard to come by.

"Depending on vaccine supply allocations from the federal government, it may be weeks before additional providers will have vaccine available for quicker and more widespread distribution," the Georgia Department of Health posted on its site.

Evans said researching and calling and driving half the day were more than worth the peace of mind she has now that she and her husband have had their initial shots. And they already have appointments for the follow-up vaccination in February, so they'll make their way back to Rome again next month, she added.

"When they made the first appointment, they also made the second appointment," she said.

They also have added another trip to their calendar. They'll fly to Seattle in mid-March to see one of their four sons and his family, whom they have not seen in a year.

"It's been awful," Evans said. "We've postponed a trip to see them forever."

Contact Mary Fortune at mfortune@timesfreepress.com. Follow her on Twitter at @maryfortune.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com.

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