TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — While vaccine supply is limited, there's a big disparity when it comes to Florida's minority population getting the shot. To help boost those numbers, state officials started a pilot program. But is it having an impact?
Malinda James just received her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine this week. The Tallahassee woman considered the opportunity a blessing.
"I thought, I've been praying and asking God for a cure," James said. "This is His way to answer that, and I've got to trust him."
Fellow African Americans haven't been as trusting, which is a big concern for state officials trying to reach herd immunity. Research, again and again, has shown the population has safety concerns. James' friends are among them.
"What I've said to a couple of people I know, you know, 'I'm trusting the science,'" she said.
Florida's Department of Emergency Management rolled out its pilot program to fight minority apprehension the first week of January. DEM partnered with a minority church in the panhandle. There, they opened a single-day vaccine site with a small supply.
Shots were available only to those selected by church leaders. Organizers hoped vaccine recipients would then encourage fellow minorities to do the same.
Four weeks later, state officials have opened up at least 20 spots across Florida, vaccinating more than 10,000 in underserved areas.
"I think the state is doing an excellent job at trying to partner with organizations in those communities that have earned those communities trust," epidemiologist Jason Salemi said.
Salemi, a University of South Florida professor, cheers the effort as a smart way to cut down on minority concerns. Now, states like New York, Ohio and North Carolina are doing the same.
"The more that we're partnering with organizations that have earned their trust, that can disseminate an accurate message, the better the state will be doing," he said.
Almost everyone agrees, though, the Sunshine State could do more. That includes those overseeing the program, like Florida Division of Emergency Director Jared Moskowitz. He would like to make the sites permanent.
"There is no doubt that minorities are underrepresented based on the population on getting the vaccine," Moskowitz told reporters outside a Thursday committee meeting.
State vaccine data shows only about 5% of shots have gone to African Americans despite making up 17% of Florida's population. Lawmakers questioned the issue this week. Moskowitz telling them the supply is his biggest hurdle.
"I don't have the vaccine to open up 300 city pods right now," said the director. "I would do 10 vaccines a day. … As soon as supply increases, the state will step into communities that have access issues and make sure that we're putting a site in their neighborhood to make it accessible."
The good news, things appear to be improving. The federal government is increasing Florida's doses this week and expects to keep ramping up future shipments in the coming weeks.
DEM is planning 30 additional temporary church sites this Sunday, reaching perhaps thousands more. It could be a big boost to the state's vaccine validators -- like James -- determined to get others like herself inoculated.
"It's like your doctor giving you a prescription and you not taking your prescription," she said. "I just encourage everyone who's eligible to take the vaccine, trust God and continue to stay safe."
Here are some things to remember about Florida’s pilot program to vaccinate minorities:
- In about four weeks, more than 10,000 have gotten shots at 20 single-day locations
- Another 30 will be available this weekend
- Officials would like to host more sites and make them permanent but say they're limited by supply
- For now, they hope minority recipients will help boost vaccine trust in those communities