Community Groups Work To Overcome Vaccination Barriers For Black Floridians
Though vaccination rates among Black Floridians still lag behind whites and Hispanics, recent data shows they are improving.
The Rev. Clarence Williams addressed people outside his church in south St. Petersburg on a recent evening. Rather than preach the Bible, he was preaching about vaccines.
“We have people that are counting on you to be healthy,” Williams said through a microphone to those gathered at Greater Mount Zion AME Church. "Come and be a part of the solution, not a part of the problem.”
Alice Bryant, 21, was among those who attended the pop-up COVID-19 vaccination event in early August, hosted by the church.
“This is like my dad,” she said of Williams. “He’s a good influence on me. He wouldn’t steer me in the wrong direction.”
She’s not the first person the pastor said he has persuaded to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“This is about the 300th person I’ve talked to,” Williams said with a laugh.
The church also hosted a clinic in February, when vaccine access was limited and demand was high. Those without digital prowess and reliable transportation were often left behind. Williams’ community was hit hard by the pandemic, and hundreds of seniors visited the site to get vaccinated.
Much has changed since then, and only a small number of people got shots at this event in August.
Williams said it’s harder now to reach people who aren’t vaccinated but said that makes these efforts all the more important.
“It looks small in the broad scheme of things, but if everybody touched those that they can, sometimes one at a time," he said. "It’s great if we can get a coliseum full of people, but if we can’t. Let’s go door to door and try to get people engaged.”
It’s hard to know how many Black people have gotten shots in Florida. Race and ethnicity information is missing from 13% of people vaccinated in the state.
But where it is available, data from the Florida Department of Health shows only about 9% of all the vaccines administered so far have gone to Black people, even though they make up about 17% of the population.
The data also shows just 31% of Black Floridians have gotten a COVID-19 vaccine, compared with nearly 50% of whites and Hispanics.
The church event at Greater Mount Zion AME was part of a summer-long vaccination campaign to boost vaccine rates among people of color. Groups including the St. Petersburg anti-violence initiative Not My Son and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County partnered on these events. They featured music and free meals from a local food truck to entice families to come get their shots.
Terral Ellison, 51, got vaccinated at one in July at Mount Pilgrim Memorial Baptist Church and said the Friday night event made it easier with his schedule.
“I work and then when I get off I don’t have time, you know, because I do outside work," he said. "I work in the sun.”
Ellison explained he was often just too tired after work to deal with scheduling or showing up to an appointment, so said he appreciated being able to just walk up and get a shot at this site without waiting in line.
“I feel better now that I know I got it,” he said.
Work and other economic concerns serve as barriers for many Black residents who were hit hard by pandemic layoffs and are less likely to have health insurance. They are also less likely to have jobs with paid time off or that let them work from home.
A survey of unvaccinated adults younger than 50 conducted by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the spring found 55% of Black respondents said they were concerned they would have to miss work if they didn’t feel well after their shot. Nearly 40% feared they would have to pay out-of-pocket costs.
Community advocates like JoOni Jones, a “Safekeeper” with the Multicultural Health Institute in Sarasota, are working to address some of those worries.
Her mission as a Safekeeper is to help people in any way she can and build trust with residents, Jones explained.
She visited Oneco Elementary School in Bradenton last month to engage with families. As Jones handed out masks and crayons to kids, she talked with parents about pandemic relief programs.
“We have resources available to anybody who needs help with lights or water or rent. We can help you. The government’s got it [financial assistance]. Let me tell you, if the government’s got it now, you better jump on it while you can!” she said with a laugh and smile that was evident even through her mask.
Jones said she saw a lot more people needing help during the pandemic and that in the beginning it was for basic needs like food.
Relieving those burdens can open the door for conversations about the vaccine, and Safekeepers have been instrumental in getting people of color vaccinated in the communities they serve, said Jan Booher, director of civic engagement and training for Resilient American Communities.
“To be able to find people and get them registered, to make sure they are reminded of their appointments, to provide transportation when necessary, and then to really give people the hand-holding they need if they are fearful,” said Booher, who is part of the Multicultural Health Institute’s coalition of experts and advocates.
The Multicultural Health Institute is led by Dr. Lisa Merritt, who holds a weekly Zoom meeting with area experts to discuss the latest in pandemic data, and to share vaccine events and ideas about how to help more people get the shot.
Two months into the vaccine rollout, just 1% of Black people in Sarasota and Manatee counties were vaccinated, said Merritt.
Merritt, through the MHI, led a push to engage philanthropists, academics, and business, faith and public health leaders, asking what each person could do to help. She credits that collaborative effort with helping boost the Black vaccination rate locally.
“Working with a group of leaders and people with funding and people with capacity and health departments, etc., as well as the community and what they felt needed to happen, we were able to develop culturally representative and localized specific points of distribution” Merritt told the National Medical Association’s annual meeting in July.
“And we were able to double the number of Blacks vaccinated within the next month - of course, prioritizing the seniors at that time - and we have seen the numbers increase to 23%,” she said.
“We still have a long way to go.”
Racism in health care
Many people - of all races - have been reluctant to get the shot. According to a July survey from Kaiser, the overwhelming majority of people who still say they will “definitely not” get the vaccine are white.
But inequities in the health care system create added hurdles to getting some Black people on board.
In a different study, Kaiser found most Black adults think race-based discrimination is a problem in health care, and 20% say they’ve personally experienced it recently.
“So many of the things the United States has done have been detrimental to people of color,” said Deborah Austin, with RWEACHUP, a Tampa-based organization that aims to help achieve equality in health care and is working to boost confidence in the vaccines.
Historical abuses have also shaped attitudes about health care, like the Tuskegee syphilis study, a government-funded experiment during which white doctors intentionally failed to treat Black men with syphilis for decades.
There’s also Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cancer cells were used in groundbreaking research without her consent and, for many years, without compensation for her family.
Angela Hill with the University of South Florida’s Taneja College of Pharmacy said this experience and others contributed to generational distrust among Black people, even younger ones who may be less familiar with the history.
“They’ve been influenced or impressioned by grandparents and parents who they may have heard say something or alluded to, 'They’re [the government] going to do something to you,’ or ‘It’s all an attempt to try to kill us,’ or things of that nature,” she said.
Hill is with WE-CARE, a group that aims to get more people of color involved in clinical research that has partnered with REACHUP to combat misinformation about the vaccines. They have hosted numerous webinars and other events to educate the community about the shots.
Often leading the webinars is Kevin Sneed, dean of USF’s pharmacy school, who said the most important part is the Q&A session at the end, when attendees get a chance to voice concerns.
“Every individual that has a question, they have an opportunity to ask their question in a very safe environment," Sneed said. "And so for a skeptical person to ask their question in the comfort of their home and get a credible answer from someone that is knowledgeable has really proven to make a big difference."
“A little kick in the behind”
WE-CARE and REACHUP continue to dispel myths commonly heard all year, like that the shots are a government conspiracy to track Americans, that they can cause infertility or can alter people’s DNA.
Hill said social media has played a huge role in spreading these falsehoods and for circulating clickbait stories about vaccine side effects that magnify rare complications.
But the truth is that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that Black Americans have died from COVID at twice the rate of white people and have been hospitalized with the disease at nearly three times the rate.
Hill said that’s why it’s important to help people understand the risks of COVID far outweigh any tied to getting the shot.
“We’re trying to make sure that we’re explaining the story behind the story that they don’t get when they hear that snippet of information, because people are headliners,” she said.
Some people, like teacher Tiffany Brown, felt they needed to wait and see what happened to those who got the shot first. She got her first dose at a vaccination event at Tyer Temple United Methodist Church in East Tampa in early June.
It was a huge change for Brown, 36, who said she was initially against the vaccine.
“I was like, Lord, it’s the mark of the beast. Are they going to ring some bell and next thing I know we’re around here walking around with five legs and 10 fingers on one hand,” Brown joked. “I didn’t feel at the time that I had enough information. I felt that it was just made way too quick for me.”
As months went by, Brown saw those around her who had been vaccinated were doing OK, and she was concerned about safety during the upcoming school year. She pointed to a group of women behind her outside the church and said they convinced her that getting vaccinated was necessary to protect herself and her family.
“Rather me being stuck in my thoughts and my ways - with the help of some great church members - they gave me a little push, a little kick in the behind, and I had to do what I had to do,” she said, her friends laughing and cheering “Amen!” in the background.
Pop-up sites like the ones at Black churches, affordable housing complexes and local parks have played vital roles in making the vaccine more accessible. The state often supplied vaccine doses and health workers at these events.
But when people were hesitant, it was important that members of the community were also present, according to Dr. Washington Hill, an OB-GYN in Sarasota who has been actively promoting the vaccines as part of the Shots in Arms initiative, led by the Sarasota NAACP.
“Seeing a Black person there, someone they know or trust, that makes them feel better,” Hill said. “You can imagine if everyone there was white, uh uh, it gives me chills, no! They would turn around and leave, I can assure you.”
Hill said he has learned to “stop finger-wagging” when he encounters people who aren’t sure about the vaccine.
"I say to them now, ‘Is there anything I can say? Do you have any questions?' ” Hill said.
His advice for anyone who wants to improve vaccine rates is to “get to know the community, be involved in the community, make it easy for them, be trusted, get down to their level," Hill said.
Early on, state leaders understood the value of community advocates in promoting vaccinations in underserved communities, according to Gov. Ron DeSantis, who said the decision to partner with churches on vaccination events was meant to bring them “closer to home.”
“Getting it [the vaccines] where people who are trusted in those communities are able to advocate for it,” he said at a press conference in January.
The state also hosted smaller pop-up sites this spring in vulnerable neighborhoods and deployed canvassers to go door-to-door spreading the word about these opportunities and helping residents sign up to get shots.
Still, some advocates say they wish politicians like DeSantis would send a more consistent message about the vaccines.
The DeSantis administration argues it is doing that.
“There is no single policy priority that the governor has spent more time on, over the past year, than encouraging vaccination and expanding access to vaccines for all eligible Floridians,” DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw said in an emailed response to a related WUSF story. “Gov. DeSantis has consistently promoted vaccination as a safe, effective, responsible choice that protects vaccinated people from severe COVID-19 outcomes.”
But the governor also recently suggested that getting the shot was a personal choice, something health experts quickly disputed.
With mixed messages from the top and a lack of trust in the establishment, many people turn to family and friends for guidance.
St. Petersburg resident Courtney Poole, 39, credits her relatives for pushing her to get the shot.
“When we get together they’re like, ‘Did you get the vaccine?’ and I'm like, ‘No, not yet,’” she said. “My mom was reluctant to even hug me, like when I sneeze she's like, “No, uh uh, put on a mask.”
Poole said she was also concerned about the delta variant after her kids had COVID scares at summer camp.
The recent surge in cases is driving others to get off the fence, according to Rev. Kenny Irby, who, as community intervention director for the St. Petersburg Police Department, helped organize a series of church vaccination events this summer.
“As a pastor and as a civil servant in the community I’m hearing it from both sides, and people are afraid,” he said. “People are nervous, people are concerned and so now we have people who are now moving to action.”
State data shows Black people saw a 5% increase in vaccinations in August, compared with 2% and 3% in June and July, respectively.
But even at that pace, it could take until the end of the year to get just half of Black residents protected.
With a larger portion of Black Floridians dying from COVID-19 than whites, advocates say reaching this community should be a top priority for everybody.
Coming up: The next part in our Unequal Shots series will explore how Florida’s Hispanic community overcame barriers and is now the most vaccinated demographic in the state.
Our stories reflect reporting within the community, public records requests and other interviews designed to put the pandemic and health disparities in context. We’ve reached out to government and official sources and let you know when information we requested was not provided, or if sources declined interview requests.
Kerry Sheridan is an award-winning reporter and co-host of All Things Considered at WUSF Public Media. She covers education, health and science. Prior to joining WUSF in 2019, Kerry reported for Agence France-Presse from 2005 to 2019, reporting from the Middle East bureau in Cyprus, followed by stints in Washington and Miami. Kerry earned her master’s degree from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 2002, and was a recipient of the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship for Cultural Reporting.
Julio Ochoa is an assistant news director at WUSF and the award-winning editor of Health News Florida, a collaborative statewide news project. He also reports on health care with a focus on policy. Prior to joining WUSF in 2015, Julio worked at the Tampa Tribune, where he began as a website producer for TBO.com and served in several editing roles, eventually becoming the newspaper’s deputy metro editor.