Florida’s coronavirus vaccine rollout reveals racial divide in Tampa Bay
The Rev. Wayne G. Thompson has been trying for weeks to get coronavirus vaccine appointments for himself and his 92-year-old mother.
But the pastor of St. Petersburg’s First Baptist Institutional Church has faced confusion over when appointments would open up and trouble navigating the online and phone systems.
Thompson, 71, finally got someone this week to help him set up an account in an online portal. But he worries about others in his largely Black congregation.
“You’ve got to help people get signed up,” Thompson said. “Just don’t leave it on them.”
In the less than two months since the start of Florida’s vaccine rollout, frustration has grown throughout the state over how to score coveted doses of a limited supply of COVID-19 vaccines.
But state data reveals a stark disparity among those who have been vaccinated.
As of Thursday, white Floridians were about 2.5 times more likely to have received at least one dose as Black residents. Non-Hispanic residents were nearly twice as likely as Hispanic people to have secured doses.
The same trend is playing out in Tampa Bay. In Pinellas, Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties, white residents are twice as likely to have received vaccines as Black residents, and a similar disparity affects Hispanic people.
Historically underserved communities have been ravaged at higher rates by coronavirus cases and deaths across the U.S. Nonetheless, medical experts expected those communities would be more hesitant to take the vaccine as a byproduct of a general mistrust of a health care system that has long exploited minority populations. But the disparities in vaccinations have been exacerbated by Florida’s roll out, with limited doses and few plans for how to make distribution equitable, said Linsey Grove, health sciences program coordinator at the University of South Florida.
Vaccine appointments are mostly booked through sometimes overloaded websites and call centers, and people have traveled across county lines for shots because they couldn’t find them nearby.
The first-come, first-served model favors those with easy access to technology and transportation, as well as a schedule that provides time to hunt down available appointments. Poorly publicized plans on where and when vaccination sites are open also limit access, further isolating those in underserved communities.
The vaccination effort is still in its infancy, and state and local agencies have begun taking steps to reach Black and Hispanic residents. But experts say much of that outreach should have been in place from the beginning.
The disparities in Florida can be seen nationally, too. A recent report from the Kaiser Family Foundation found that in the 16 states that have released data by race, white residents were being vaccinated at significantly higher rates.
“Our country has managed once again to reveal certain kinds of bias don’t require you to be a racist. They’re simply baked into the system,” said Dr. Kenneth Goodman, director of the Florida Bioethics Network.
“It’s not just, ‘Let’s get shots in arms,’ but, ‘Let’s have those arms reflect the colors of the people in our communities,’” Goodman said.
A pattern of disparities
Less than 6 percent of the nearly 72,000 people in Hillsborough County who had received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Thursday identified as Black. Yet Black people account for about 17 percent of the county’s population aged 15 and older.
Hispanics make up about 28 percent of Hillsborough’s population aged 15 and older but fewer than 10 percent of those vaccinated.
In Pinellas County, the 2,800 doses given to Black residents as of Thursday account for about 4 percent of those vaccinated. Black residents make up 10 percent of the 15 and older population.
In Pasco, less than 3 percent of the county’s 27,000 people vaccinated identified as Black, though Black people make up more than 6 percent of the 15 and older population. Hernando had the smallest racial disparity in the region. Black residents made up nearly 3 percent of all people vaccinated and are less than 6 percent of the population.
One caveat in the data is that many in Florida are listed as an “unknown” race or ethnicity, which blurs the true disparity rates.
For example, in Hillsborough, about 13 percent of the people vaccinated are listed as an “unknown” race. Excluding those from the calculation, Black Hillsborough residents would still make up less than 7 percent of all vaccinations. In comparison, white Hillsborough residents, which make up 75 percent of the 15-and-older population, account for nearly 68 percent of all vaccinations when the “unknown” category is excluded.
An even higher proportion of people vaccinated in the county are listed as an unknown ethnicity; but even excluding those cases, Hispanic people account for less than 14 percent of Hillsborough residents vaccinated.
Another 22 percent of vaccinations in Hillsborough are listed as “other,” which the state says includes “Asian, native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander or other.”
The state’s population aged 65 and older — currently a key target of vaccination efforts — skews whiter and less Hispanic than the population overall. That has likely contributed to the disparities, although Florida does not currently provide a more detailed breakdown of vaccinations by race and ethnicity and age group.
Samantha Artiga, vice president and director of racial equity and health policy at Kaiser, has seen inconsistencies in how states are reporting racial data, pointing, for instance, to high rates in some areas of those with an unknown race or ethnicity.
Nevertheless, she said, the pattern is undeniable: Black and Hispanic people are making up a smaller share of those receiving vaccinations compared to their overall populations.
Data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that Black and Hispanic people are 2.8 times as likely as white and non-Hispanic people to die from the coronavirus.
In Florida, current racial and ethnic disparities in coronavirus cases and deaths are not as clear. But the disparities in vaccinations are.
Black Floridians, who make up about 17 percent of the state’s population, now account for about 13 percent of the coronavirus cases and 16 percent of deaths, as well as 21 percent of coronavirus-related hospitalizations. But Black residents accounted for less than 5 percent of vaccines administered as of Thursday.
Hispanics, who make up about 26 percent of the state’s population, account for 31 percent of cases and 24 percent of deaths. They accounted for about 8 percent of people vaccinated as of Thursday.
Related: One of Florida’s biggest disparities: how the coronavirus spread in Pinellas’ Black community
No clear focus on equity
From the beginning, the big directive to Florida’s vaccine providers has been to administer shots quickly to eligible residents.
That early rush left little focus on communication and other efforts required for equitable distribution, said Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist and board member of the Florida Health Justice Project. The advocacy group aims to expand health care access and promote equity for vulnerable Floridians.
“We’re not even having the discussions we normally have,” Bailey said. “It’s just, ‘Do you want it or not?’”
Florida’s draft vaccination plan from October — crafted well before many details of the country’s COVID-19 vaccination system were known — discussed ensuring equity in who got doses but offered little detail about how it would do so.
The draft said that local health departments would “leverage community partners, community health workers and health educators to identify, estimate and provide outreach to ensure health equity efforts.” Florida has not released an updated plan.
In practice, distribution plans in the early weeks of the rollout accentuated existing disparities, advocates say, citing which locations were being used as vaccination sites and how people learned about and signed up for doses.
Surveys have shown that Black and Hispanic adults are less likely than white adults in the U.S. to have a computer or high-speed internet at home, with that digital divide and transportation issues more likely to isolate low-income people.
Related: For farmworkers, coronavirus information can be as hard to find as vaccines
In recent weeks, Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced an expanded list of Publix stores offering doses (although none are in Hillsborough, Pinellas or Pasco so far). That approach, experts say, may not reach low-income or rural areas.
Those communities are more likely to be in so-called food deserts, without nearby grocery stores.
Related: First Sweetbay, now Publix pass on urban grocery stores on different sides of Tampa Bay
In Palm Beach County, where Publix has become one of the only vaccine providers, people living in the remote and largely Black farming communities in Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay are at times 25 miles from the closest Publix. White residents in Palm Beach were more than five times as likely to have gotten a vaccine as Black residents, as of Thursday.
Meanwhile, DeSantis announced that a smattering of churches throughout the state will host temporary vaccination sites. But the governor has not provided more details.
“There’ve been attempts at fixing some of the equitable distribution issues. But it’s not been systematic,” said Bailey of the Florida Health Justice Project. “It’s been ad hoc kinds of relationships with particular religious institutions.”
Working to address inequities is critical as the rollout continues, experts and advocates say.
“Those numbers are very disturbing. We can’t do the same things we’ve been doing and expect those numbers to increase,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr., pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Flagstaff and the organizer of a statewide task force focused on community engagement around the COVID-19 vaccines.
Holmes said his task force sent a letter to DeSantis’ office a month ago, suggesting his group could work with the government to increase vaccine access. As of Thursday, he said he had not heard back.
“I want everybody, all Floridians, to get vaccinated,” Holmes said. “But at the same time, I know the history of minorities being left behind when it comes to getting good quality health care.”
County health departments and advocacy groups have begun work to fill in the gaps, but the efforts appear constrained by lack of vaccine supply.
Hillsborough County recently launched a program to vaccinate eligible people in underserved communities and bring doses to places like senior homes, independent living communities and churches. Last weekend, the program brought 600 shots to Greater Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tampa.
While it was a successful event, Pastor Brett Snowden said, it didn’t meet the demand. More than 100 others showed up or called and were unable to get a shot, he said.
One was Jonnie May Harris, 72, of Lutz, who said all the appointments filled before she could finish the registration paperwork.
“They weren’t taking any more (appointments),” Harris said. “My husband and I were left out.”
About 350 locations have been identified for Hillsborough’s program, said health department spokesman Kevin Watler. But it’s unclear when doses will get to them.
In Pinellas, where supply also has been an issue, the health department said it is partnering with organizations like the Pinellas County Urban League and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to better reach communities of color. A spokeswoman pointed to an event earlier this month where 534 people got immunizations at Mt. Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist, a predominantly Black church in St. Petersburg.
Thompson, the pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg, said he and other Black ministers offered up their churches as vaccination sites but have not been contacted.
Thompson said he knows scarcity is a problem for everyone but the vaccines must reach underserved communities.
”When you’ve got a lot of groceries, everybody can eat,” he said. “When you don’t have a lot of groceries, you kind of have to select who gets to eat. That’s the kind of situation we’re in.
“We’ve got to struggle to get everybody fed. It can’t just be for certain people and not for other people.”
Tampa Bay Times staff writer Langston Taylor contributed to this story.
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