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In Fall 2020, WUSF began reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida's health care system. Our stories focus on the voices of residents in communities of color and how Florida's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution affects them.WUSF’s reporting on disparities in health care access is funded in part by the COVID-19 Response Initiative of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Sarasota County Vaccine Doses ‘Down to Zero,’ Health Department Says

A screenshot of a Zoom meeting featuring Black and Hispanic doctors
The Sarasota NAACP hosted a virtual town hall about coronavirus concerns

Until a vaccine can be more widely distributed, doctors are urging people to keep wearing masks and social distancing in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

The main distribution point for coronavirus vaccine delivery in Sarasota County has depleted its supply and does not know when it will receive more, a health official said Sunday.

"When we left the office on Friday, we were down to zero and waiting to receive more," said Sarasota County Department of Health officer Chuck Henry, during an online town hall to discuss concerns about coronavirus in Black and Hispanic communities.

"Unfortunately, the last word I got on allocations for Sarasota County for the coming week were not good,” he added. “In fact, right now there is not any vaccine scheduled to come to me this week so I am in a holding pattern until we hear more. I think Manatee (County) is in the same boat."

Gov. Ron DeSantis has prioritized the vaccine for people age 65 and older, as well as health care workers, but online reservations have filled up within minutes in Sarasota County and across the state.

During the virtual town hall, titled “The Black and Brown Race and COVID-19 Vaccine,” hosted by the Sarasota NAACP, local doctors talked of their own experiences with the vaccine and particular risks of COVID-19 complications faced in their communities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says systemic health and social inequities have put many people from racial and ethnic minorities at increased risk of getting sick and dying from COVID-19.

Dr. Lisa Merritt said that infections and deaths from COVID-19 in Black and Hispanic populations are inordinately high, compared to whites.

“It's important to protect our family ourselves and to stop the propagation because we are disproportionately being affected,” she said.

Dr. Kevin Sneed, founding Dean of the University of South Florida College of Pharmacy, said he received the vaccine himself last week, and other than some mild chills afterward, feels fine.

"It's nothing unique about our melanin in our skin, nothing unique about our ethnic background, very often because of health disparities and other conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure which is really prevalent in our communities, we become much more susceptible," said Sneed.

Neighborhoods, or certain geographic areas where residents may face higher risk from coronavirus, cannot be targeted under the current system of requiring online reservations, Henry said.

“Clearly while that system is efficient in ticketing people, it causes a lot of frustration and it doesn’t really give equal access to those that may not have computers or those that may not be comfortable with computers,” Henry said.

Local health officials are not yet able to hold vaccine delivery events in high-need areas, but Henry said he is hopeful that will happen eventually.

For now, the demand for vaccine in Sarasota County has far outweighed the supply.

With 150,000 residents over age 65 – not including those who visit during the winter months – there have been just under 20,000 doses distributed by area hospitals and the health department, he said.

“One of the things I lose sleep over is worrying that when you all do such a good job of educating the community and convincing people to get the vaccine that I won't have the vaccine available or won't be able to get it to them,” Henry said.

I cover health and K-12 education – two topics that have overlapped a lot since the pandemic began.
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