Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone digs into how churches are being chosen to host vaccination sites in minority communities and uncovered the process relies on relationships over data.
Florida’s process to make the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine more equitable to minorities is full of inequities, we found. The result is leaving churches with connections to state leaders and politicians at the front of the line to become vaccination sites.
The numbers are clear minorities are disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus. In addition, minorities are targets of effective misinformation campaigns surrounding the vaccine. In an effort to combat these challenges and encourage more minorities to take the vaccine, in January, state leaders announced they would be partnering up with Florida churches in black and brown communities.
The state would provide select churches up to 500 COVID-19 vaccines to host day or two-day-long vaccination clinics. These temporary church vaccination sites would be the state’s shot at closing the gap of vaccine inequality.
But we found the state’s process of selecting churches in minority communities is not based on data but instead depends on a wing, a prayer and a whole lot of connections.
“It would be disingenuous to say politics and who’s who is not a part of it,” said Pastor Clarence Williams of the Greater Mt. Zion AME Church on the south side of St. Petersburg.
His community has been hit hard by the virus. His church hosted a state clinic last month, but getting the clinic took a church member who had a line to a Senator in Tallahassee. The church member, Rene Flowers, also happens to be Pinellas County Commissioner.
We asked Flowers if she thought the state’s selection process was based on data or relationships.
“It’s relationships, it’s not data. If it was data, the state would reach out and contact organizations within those communities of color, within those high-risk zip codes and begin providing service,” Flowers told us.
Meantime, Reverend Wayne Thompson of the First Baptist Institutional Church also in St. Petersburg has been ready, willing and able to host a clinic.
Last month, he invited the media to his church for a press conference about the continued racial disparities of the state’s vaccination distribution plan. At the time he said, he and neighboring church leaders had identified dozens of churches ready to help but no-one had heard anything from the state.
When we asked Reverend Dr. Thompson what he knew about how the state was selecting churches to host vaccine clinics, he replied, “I don’t know, but I know it’s not working."
On the east coast, Florida Representative Omari Hardy told us it took calling his buddy in Tallahassee to get a church to host a clinic in the heart of the African American community in West Palm Beach. That buddy is Jared Moskowitz, Director of Florida’s Division of Emergency Management which is on the front line of deciding who gets vaccines in the state.
Ten days later, Hardy said the Tabernacle Missionary Baptist Church, was chosen as a vaccine clinic. The church is one of five churches to host a vaccine clinic in the county.
“That’s not the way it should work,” said Hardy. “There should be a data-driven that decides which sites are selected. It shouldn’t be based on relationships that folks in the office have with each other,” said Hardy.
The state admits its church selection process is based not on data it collects, but on the word of people in communities.
In a statement Samantha Bequer, spokesperson for the FL Division of Emergency Management, told us, “The state relies on the expertise of members of these communities to propose and identify locations for these vaccination clinics. Individuals who live and work in these communities will have the best knowledge on which areas of their communities need increased vaccine access."
Among the problems, the state is only listening to some of them.
Leon County Pastor Dr. RB Holmes of Missionary Baptist Church also chairs a voluntary statewide task-force created to help ensure minority communities get equal access to the vaccine. He also didn’t know how the state was selecting churches.
In December, he wrote a letter to Governor DeSantis inviting the Governor to work with his task-force in helping to identify churches to host clinics. To date, Holmes hasn’t heard a thing but his group has identified 100 churches with the community need and space to host clinics.
“If the Governor of Florida does not want to work with us, and wants to work around us and cherry-pick. God bless him, he’s the Governor,” Holmes said.
So far, the state has partnered up with more than 50 churches across 18 counties in Florida. Nearly 35,000 people have received their first dose of the vaccine at one of these church clinics.
But statewide, minorities still account for just 6% of all vaccinations administered here.
Florida Senator Perry Thurston represents Broward County in South Florida where most faith-based vaccine clinics have been held so far. With Miami-Dade and Broward counties containing the highest population of minorities and positive cases in the state, it only makes sense. But Thurston acknowledges, so does the politics.
“Without a doubt, it boils down to relationships,” Thurston said. “You ask is it fair? No, I don’t think it’s fair,” he said.