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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.

Black Floridians Receiving Coronavirus Vaccine At Much Lower Rate Than Whites

Hillsborough County resident Lelia Clark sits in her car at a coronavirus vaccination site.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public Media
Getting her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine meant a lot to Lelia Clark, 77. She is one of the 55,916 Black people who have been vaccinated in Florida as of Wednesday, compared to 710, 885 white people.

Of the more than 1 million people who have received a coronavirus vaccine in Florida, only about 5% are Black.

Lelia Clark, 77, sat smiling in her car on a recent morning at the Strawberry Festival Fairgrounds in Plant City.

Clark, a resident of the nearby historic African American neighborhood Bealsville, had just received her first dose of a coronavirus vaccine at the drive-thru site run by Hillsborough County.

She had arrived an hour ahead of her appointment to try to get farther up in the line of hundreds of people eagerly waiting for their shots, and was parked in the monitoring area where people linger to make sure they respond to the vaccine smoothly.

Clark explained she wanted protection from COVID-19 as soon as possible.

“I have a lot of underlying conditions and I just wanted to be safe,” she said, adding with a laugh, “And I want to get out of the house!”

Clark has spent the last year mostly at home with her husband, who isn’t getting the vaccine yet due to severe allergies, which health officials have warned can put patients at risk for adverse reactions. Clark said she feels she's in a better position to help him now if he gets sick.

“As far as taking care and wearing my mask, I'm going to still be careful,” she said.

Like many, Clark failed to get an appointment when the county first made them available and its website crashed. But she succeeded when a new reservation system launched a week later.

Generally she's considered one of the lucky ones who have already gotten a vaccine, but even more so among Black Floridians.

The latest census data shows about four or five times more white people live in Florida than Black, but so far, more than 12 times as many white people have received the vaccine.

The state's vaccine report released on Wednesday afternoon shows 55,916 Black people receiving at least one dose, compared to 710,885 whites.

Two female health workers sit at a folding table preparing syringes with coronavirus vaccines at a Hillsborough County vaccination site.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF Public MEdia
Health workers prepare coronavirus vaccines at a drive-thru site in Hillsborough County. Appointments at these sites are hard to come by, and the need for reliable transportation to get to them poses additional challenges for some Black residents.

Barriers to vaccinations

Access is a huge issue, according to Deborah Austin, the community engagement director for REACHUP, a Tampa nonprofit that promotes health equity. And she said challenges start with the sign-up process.

“You have to have internet access, you have to be able to sit there and wait — I mean people have said even with the phone it took them 100 times,” said Austin. “You even have to have time.”

Transportation barriers also make it challenging for some Black residents to get to drive-thru sites.

And there is also mistrust of government and the health system.

“So many of the things the United States has done have been detrimental to people of color,” explained Austin.

She cited past medical abuses as examples, like the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, when doctors misled and intentionally didn't treat Black men for decades to study the disease. But also the everyday racism in health care Black people face.

REACHUP has partnered with Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the University of South Florida's College of Pharmacy and director of a program called WE-CARE that works to get more people of color involved in clinical research.

They're amplifying the voices of trusted Black leaders to encourage the community to get vaccinated.

They have also hosted dozens of webinars where Sneed combats misinformation with conversation, not commands.

He gave some examples of rumors that can spread like wildfire in the social media era. Some young women have told him they're concerned the vaccine could make them infertile.

Other people fear the immunizations contain preservatives, or that the mRNA technology used in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines could negatively alter their DNA.

“These are things we have to educate people on and help them overcome their fears, and help them understand that this virus is far more dangerous than anything about a vaccine,” said Sneed.

Coronavirus vaccines being administered
Florida Department of Health
Coronavirus vaccines are administered at the St. John’s Progressive Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa on Jan. 10, 2021.

Efforts to close the gap

He wants politicians and health officials to listen to Black residents' concerns and to make the vaccines more accessible.

And that's already started to happen.

The state has hosted several vaccination events at predominantly Black churches.

Some communities, such as Miami Beach and Hillsborough County, are also visiting senior homes and affordable housing complexes to deliver vaccines directly to residents who may struggle to get to the public sites.

But the initiatives will take a while to complete, cautions Kevin Watler, spokesman for the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County.

“The vaccine is in very short supply, we know that, and so we don't want to over-promise and not be able to deliver,” he said.

Mobile vaccination sites are also one of Sneed's priorities, but he too said supply is a big problem.

He's urging the federal government to send more doses to Florida.

And with COVID-19 disproportionately killing Black people, Sneed said state and local leaders need to be aggressive with their outreach and act with a real sense of urgency.

"Because if we don't, then once again the ugly stain of health inequity will show up, and we're at a moment now where we can't look back after the fact and say, ‘How we can do better next time?’ because for many of them, there won't be a next time,” he said.

Advocates like Sneed and the REACHUP team are continuing to focus on education and identifying neighborhoods most in need of help, so when the vaccine finally does become more widely available, they will be ready.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.