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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.

Outreach Program, Health Dept. Team Up To Bring Vaccines To Pinellas Black Community

COVID-19 vaccinations underway at the Not My Son rally on June 25.
COVID-19 vaccinations underway at the Not My Son rally on June 25.

In an effort to ease the disparities in vaccination rates of communities of color, county officials and a local organization are teaming up to offer vaccine sites in St. Petersburg.

The Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County and local outreach program Not My Son (NMS) are teaming up to make it easier for Black families in St. Petersburg to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

NMS helps prevent criminal activity and gun violence among school-age children during the summer, according to the Rev. Kenneth Irby, director of Community Intervention at the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Staff from the health department will join NMS’ Community Intersection Rallies to supply doses of the Pfizer vaccine to anyone 12 or older. No appointment is required.

Anyone younger than 18 needs consent from a parent or guardian before they’re vaccinated.

The rallies will be held at St. Petersburg churches every at 6 p.m. Friday through Aug. 13.

Irby asked Ulyee Choe, director of the health department in Pinellas, if they could work together again after collaborating in the early months of the pandemic.

“The virus's public health challenge, we can avert, if we engage people and create opportunities for folks to receive the vaccine without some of the traditional barriers that have been implemented this year with our vaccination efforts in the U.S.,” said Irby.

“This is a public safety issue across the board, just as the anti-crime and anti-gun format had been in the previous five years.”

The effort is also part of the health department’s Minority Health and Health Equity Program, which aims to reduce vaccine disparity by reaching out to minority communities.

“Instead of saying, ‘We have the vaccine, come to us despite your barriers,’ we’re telling people, ‘We'll take it out to you to make it easier,’” said Pinellas health department spokesperson Maggie Hill.

To read more from Health News Florida's Unequal Shots Series, click here.

As of June 24, the gap in the vaccination rates between Black and white people remains. Approximately 31.2% of people identified as non-Hispanic whites are fully vaccinated nationwide, while only 21.9% of non-Hispanic Blacks are, according to the CDC.

The vaccination gap in Florida is even more pronounced — the Florida Department of Health says 42% of white Floridians have received at least one vaccination, compared to 22% of Black Floridians.

Partnering with NMS was an opportunity to increase outreach to the St. Petersburg Black community, especially children and teenagers.

“It’s a good opportunity to go where we can get the 12-and-over population. Some of the early demand was from seniors, people 65 plus, who were the first ones to get the vaccine,” said Hill. “Now that we moved to other groups, it's going to require changing tactics in how we reach those different groups. It's not just a matter of going to nursing homes like we were.”

“We're finding opportunities to go where the community is, specifically communities of color that may have barriers with transportation or cultural issues or just a host of different things,” she added.

And Irby said there is still a need to quell some concerns in the Black community about the safety of vaccines.

“At every juncture that we can, we're telling folks that the vaccination is safe, and that an important step of personal safety now is to accept the vaccine for both yourself and for those around you,” said Irby. “We're excited about bringing that to a younger audience and their parents.”

People who receive the first dose of the vaccine at one rally will be scheduled for their second dose at a subsequent one or at any of the Pinellas health department locations.

For Irby, adding this health element to the police department’s community outreach events is another extension of NMS' goals.

“This is an expansion of the original vision of community engagement and public safety. The novel coronavirus has added to the fierce urgency of now,” he said.

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Jorgelina Manna-Rea