Black community leaders in Florida working to make sure their constituents aren't left behind in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout

Black community leaders in Florida working to make sure their constituents aren't left behind in the COVID-19 vaccine rollout
Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons
A coalition of Black community leaders said Wednesday they will work to ensure that upward of 70 percent of the state’s minority population gets vaccinated against the virus that causes COVID-19.

“My friends, this is a sense of urgency. We feel that these vaccines are a gift of life. We know unfortunately, and sadly, that people of color are dying disproportionately,” R.B. Holmes, the pastor of Tallahassee’s Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, said during a meeting of the Florida Statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Community Engagement Task Force. “Many of us, all of us, have buried, ministered and comforted thousands of people who have died from the virus. This is one battle that we cannot sit out.”

Holmes spearheaded the creation of the taskforce, which includes representatives from historically Black colleges and universities as well as Black business leaders, Black media representatives and Black politicians. The group wants to develop a vaccination strategy aimed at medically underserved communities that have been disproportionately and adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Holmes said the task force will work in conjunction — and not at odds — with Gov. Ron DeSantis and his administration.

“We gotta go from the spirit of criticism to the spirit of cooperation. The bottom line is, too many people are dying from this virus. The bottom line is, we have to be the voices that saves our people,” Holmes said. “We understand the Tuskegee experiment. We understand the medical community — how bad it has been back in the day. We get this. But in this day, too many people are dying across this country, across this state from the coronavirus. That’s the crisis. That’s the crisis.”

The task force’s meeting came as the number of COVID-19 cases in the state continues to spike and as Florida struggles to distribute doses of Pfizer Inc. and Moderna vaccines that already have been delivered to the state.

DeSantis traversed the state Wednesday making appearances in Pensacola and Miami-Dade County touting new locations where people age 65 and older can obtain the coveted COVID-19 vaccinations.

According to a federal website, 1.152 million doses of the vaccines have been distributed to the state as of Jan. 5. But just 25 percent of the doses have been distributed to those who qualify for the vaccinations, according to a Jan. 4 report by the Florida Department of Health.

The report shows that, of the 287,776 people vaccinated thus far, slightly more than 5 percent are Black. More than 57 percent of those who received vaccinations are white, and more than 19 percent of the shots were given to people who identified as “other.”

Meanwhile, Florida health officials have logged more than 1.4 million cases of COVID-19 in the state since the pandemic began. As of Wednesday, the Florida Department of Health reported that 22,317 Florida residents have died of COVID-19.

The state’s vaccination efforts have been hampered by long lines, jammed phone systems and overwhelmed websites as Florida seniors scrambled to get inoculations from county health departments and hospitals.

DeSantis issued an executive order Dec. 23 that made people age 65 and older and health-care providers who have direct contact with patients eligible for the vaccinations. There are 4.4 million people age 65 and older in Florida.

DeSantis has downplayed the distribution chaos but at the same time has worked to bolster the state’s current vaccination efforts, which rely largely on hospitals. County health departments also have been enlisted in the state plan.

The governor appeared in Pensacola Wednesday to tout the efforts of Ascension Sacred Heart Hospital and its goal to distribute 3,500 doses of the Moderna vaccine to people 65 and older by Thursday. The hospital is working with Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola and the Milton Community Center to meet the goal.

“You’re going to see this all over the state,” the governor said. “You’re going to see a lot of shots going into arms.”

Later Wednesday, DeSantis held a press conference at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, which will be converted from a drive-thru COVID-19 testing site to a COVID-19 vaccination site. DeSantis said the state will start slowly offering 1,000 vaccines per day, to avoid confusion and long lines.

The governor on Tuesday announced an agreement with Publix supermarkets that will bring 15,000 vaccinations to 22 stores in three Florida counties.

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