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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.

White House Sending COVID-19 Vaccines To Some Florida Community Health Centers

A woman sits in a chair as a health worker administers the coronavirus vaccine inside a community health center.
Premier Community HealthCare
Premier Community HealthCare, which serves patients in Pasco and Hernando counties, is one of the first federally qualified health centers in Florida to receive direct coronavirus vaccine shipments from the federal government.

It's part of a national initiative to reach underserved communities and starts with 250 centers around the country.

Some health centers in Florida that primarily serve low-income and uninsured patients are expecting a shipment of coronavirus vaccines from the federal government next week.

It's part of the Biden administration's plan to provide supplies directly to federally qualified health centers, also known as FQHCs or community health centers.

The phased plan starts with 250 facilities nationwide. One of those is Premier Community HealthCare, which has clinics in Pasco and Hernando counties.

Cheryl Pollock, chief development and communications officer, said staff are thrilled to get more supplies to continue their vaccination efforts.

“We have over 3,000 patients who are 65 and up at our clinics, so that is our focus,” she said.

Pollock said the center administered more than 900 doses it received from the state in early January and is now giving out second shots.

She said staff are trying to remove barriers to accessing the vaccine.

“A lot of our patients don't have internet, you know, a lot of our patients don't have the ability to surf the web whenever they feel like it and find these resources,” said Pollock. “And so we use text messaging we use phone calls, etc.”

According to Andrew Behrman, president and CEO of the Florida Association of Community Health Centers, Miami Beach Community Health Center and Family Health Centers of Southwest Florida are some other facilities in the state in the first phase of the federal program.

He said FQHCs can play important roles in reducing racial and socioeconomic disparities in vaccine distribution.

“Community health centers are really the safety net with the mission of making sure that all patients, all people have access to care,” said Behrman.

He said facilities in Florida have administered more than 90,000 doses of coronavirus vaccines so far, which many received from the state last month.

Community Health Centers of Pinellas was one of them, and Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nichelle Threadgill, said health workers gave 3,000 first shots to employees and patients and are in the process of administering second doses.

Even though the center is not included in the first group of FQHCs getting direct shipments from the federal government, Threadgill said it was “a joy” to learn about the program, which will eventually expand to include more than 1,300 facilities nationwide.

She said community health center staff have direct relationships with patients because they see them for primary care. This makes them natural candidates to aid in the nation’s vaccination effort.

“They are patients that we know, patients that know us, and so the ability to talk, educate and discuss concerns and questions about vaccines really falls on us, and it’s coming from a trusted source and that makes a large difference when it comes to compliance and hesitancy,” Threadgill said.

But Behrman adds community health centers need more resources to ramp up vaccinations on a large scale.

“We have concerns about workforce, we have serious concerns on supplies,” he said. “It’s not just the vaccines themselves but in order to provide the shots – needles, personal protective equipment is so critical, and you have to remember we’re still testing [for the coronavirus] thousands of people a day.”

Behrman is calling on the federal government to pass a coronavirus relief bill that would provide funding to community health centers.

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.