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East Tampa Pharmacy's Vaccine Boost Gives Hope In Underserved Community

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Pharmacist Vondalyn Wright, gives a COVID-19 vaccine at Health Matters Pharmacy, which she owns and operates in the Eat Tampa community.

An extra 1,000 doses - five times the amount it was slated to receive - was set to arrive at Health Matters Pharmacy, a Black-owned business in a community struggling to vaccinate residents.

State Rep. Diane Hart got the call early Friday morning.

“That was the Department of Emergency Management letting me know starting next week she’ll be getting a thousand. It’s gonna be phenomenal," recalls Hart, who represents District 61 in East Tampa.

Vondalyn Wright owns and operates the Health Matters Pharmacy on 50th Street in that district. Wright, a pharmacist, said getting the initial run of 200 doses of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been a game changer. But getting a 1,000 doses as vaccines were set to open up to all adults in Florida on Monday. That can change worlds.

“For our community to have 1,000 doses it’s gonna be huge," Wright said. "Hopefully, we can get that weekly so we can just really service the community like we need to.”

Location matters. East Tampa is about 84 percent Black. Since the vaccine rollout began in December, the coronavirus has devastated minority communities, killing them at much higher rates. But white people in Florida and across the country have been vaccinated at about three times the rate of Black and brown people.

Dr. Wright said that has to do as much with hesitancy thanks to racially motivated medical experiments like the Tuskegee syphilis study as it does with access. Wright thought a Black-owned pharmacy in an underserved community would be an obvious choice to receive vaccines.

“We just thought it would be natural that we would be the first people to get the vaccinations when they came out. Didn’t happen,” Wright said.

Instead, vaccines were first sent to large companies like Publix, CVS and Walgreens, all of which are less common in mostly minority communities. Hart said getting a vaccine from someone you know and trust matters.

“People respect the people they know and people that may look like them," Wright said. "Already being a pharmacist and having patients come in and out everyday to get their meds, many of them were like,‘When are you gonna get it because I don’t want to get it anywhere else.’ ”

So far, Wright said it’s worked.

“I’ve had people that had a change of heart that now they want to go ahead and do the vaccination they didn’t trust in the first place,” Wright said.

Julie Escalante got her shot Friday afternoon. She said being able to get her shot from a trusted location in her community made a yearlong hope of being vaccinated a reality.

“I think the trust factor of knowing it’s in the neighborhood makes you feel better," Escalante said. "It’s a little overwhelming to be like, 'I’m gonna go to the racetrack or I’m gonna go here,' " referring to the federally supported vaccine site Tampa Greyhound Track.

"You never know what you’re gonna expect versus just a small little pharmacy. The comfort zone. It’s definitely more comfortable.”

Appointments for the single-does vaccine are filling up fast, but are still available through the pharmacy’s website,