On a cool Valentine’s Day in northern Florida, more than 500 people braved heavy rain to get COVID-19 vaccination shots at St. Paul AME Church in Jacksonville.
The vaccination event was part of the annual Founder’s Day celebration for the church, which is located in one of the most heavily Democratic voting precincts in the city, said the church’s pastor, Marvin Clyde Zanders II. Despite the rain, he said, it was “very well orchestrated.”
The vaccination event at St. Paul AME is one of more than 50 vaccination events that have been held at churches and recreation centers over the last few weeks in a concerted effort to get more shots in the arms of Floridians living in underserved communities.
The events have been spearheaded by the Florida Division of Emergency Management and the Department of Health, at the direction of the state’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis. More than 42,000 people have been vaccinated at the one-day clinics, according to the DOE.
“Our communities need access to the vaccine, and I think there is an effort to get it done,” Zanders said, “because all are vulnerable. Every individual that’s a human is vulnerable.”
Those efforts to vaccinate people in underserved Florida communities were largely ignored by most mainstream media outlets this past week during a flap over a pop-up vaccination event at a wealthy community along the state’s Gulf Coast. During the three-day pop-up event, 3,000 doses of vaccine were administered in a planned community with a large number of seniors called Lakewood Ranch in Manatee County, just south of St. Petersburg.
Democrats charged that DeSantis was playing politics with vaccine distribution, and favoring white, wealthy Republicans. State Representative Michele Rayner, a St. Petersburg Democrat, accused the governor of prioritizing “affluent neighborhoods in Manatee County over our underserved populations.” Niki Fried, Florida’s agriculture commissioner and the only Democrat elected to statewide office, accused DeSantis of “rationing vaccines based on political influence.”
DeSantis, with his pugnacious style, fired back that the community – which is below the statewide average for vaccinated seniors – should be “thankful” that it was receiving an additional 3,000 vaccine doses, on top of its regular allocation.
“If Manatee County doesn’t like us doing this, then we are totally fine with putting this in counties that want it and we’re totally happy to do that,” DeSantis said of the complaints.
State and national media jumped on the Democrats’ complaints and amplified the controversy. The Tampa Bay Times story about the event ran with the headline “Well-off Manatee residents get special vaccine access, courtesy of DeSantis.” A Washington Post headline read “County officials blasted DeSantis over vaccine site in an affluent White area. So he threatened to take away the doses.”
Most of the media coverage, however, either played down or completely ignored the efforts by DeSantis’s administration to target vaccines to the state’s underserved populations.
For example, in early February DeSantis teamed with former NFL star Anquan Boldin to distribute vaccines in Boldin’s hometown of Pahokee, an impoverished farming community on the shore of Lake Okeechobee. More than 60 percent of Pahokee’s population is black, according to U.S. Census reports. Because the city is about 30 miles from the nearest Publix grocery store – one of the state’s primary vaccination distributors – most of the area’s seniors had little access to the vaccine, according to a report by The Palm Beach Post.
According to The Post, DeSantis was contacted about Pahokee by the state’s lottery secretary, John Davis, another former Pahokee football standout who had been talking with Boldin.
“John came to me and said, ‘Is there any way we can make it happen?’” DeSantis said, according to The Post. “I’m like, ‘We need to make it happen.’”
In an interview with National Review, Jared Moskowitz, Florida’s emergency management director and a Democrat, said the state has multiple strategies for distributing the vaccine, including through open points of distribution, where anyone who qualifies can make an appointment, pharmacies, hospitals and physician clinics. They also distribute the vaccine through what are called “closed PODs,” which are only open to select populations. The 51 churches and recreation centers that have had vaccination events are closed PODs.
“We started doing this with churches because we were very concerned that doses were not getting to the minority community,” Moskowitz said. “Even though we had sites in the minority community, because of the digital divide of booking appointments online and vaccine hesitancy, they were not getting into the minority community.”
Among the 51 churches and recreation centers where the state has had vaccination events are: Holy Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Opa-Locka, a poor majority-black city in Miami-Dade County; a recreation center in downtown Fort Myers; and at least two churches in the overwhelmingly Hispanic city of Hialeah, in Miami-Dade.
Last week, the Division of Emergency Management established a state-supported vaccination site at the historically black Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, the state capital.
DeSantis’s administration has also launched a program to deliver vaccines to homebound seniors, starting with Holocaust survivors, and World War II and Korean War veterans.
Zanders, the St. Paul AME pastor, said he believes the state has made an effort to get people in underserved communities vaccinated. But, he said, “there can be some more concerted effort as it relates to getting access to the black community.” Only about 5 percent of the people vaccinated in Florida so far are black.
Moskowitz said the state was targeting Manatee County last week because it was one of several Gulf Coast counties that are behind the state average for vaccinating seniors. It was a closed POD, with vaccinations limited to people over 65 in two ZIP Codes. DeSantis’s office chose the location for the event, Moskowitz said. It is one of at least a dozen similar events that have been held across the state targeting senior communities, he said.
DeSantis defended the location of the event Thursday on Fox News. “We saw that we needed to get more seniors in that particular county, so we worked with some of the local neighborhoods and said, ‘Where are there a lot of seniors? Where can we go in and knock out several thousand very quickly to get those numbers up?’” DeSantis said. “We’re not going to stop until every senior that wants a shot gets a shot. And we’re not going to let some of the naysayers slow us down.”
Moskowitz said the media jumped on the Manatee County vaccination event because it “fit a narrative that many wanted to tell.”
“We’re trying to vaccinate as many seniors as possible,” Moskowitz said. “Does a senior who lives in a housing project who might get COVID versus a senior that lives in Century Village or The Villages, if they get COVID, they both wind up in the hospital potentially in each of their communities. And that end of the day, we have to vaccinate everybody.”
There are different challenges in different communities to getting people vaccinated, including historic vaccine hesitancy in the black community and more recent politicization of the vaccine in rural white communities, Moskowitz said. He said he recently spent time in Miami vaccinating people in homeless camps.
Ultimately, he said, vaccine distribution in Florida is based on math, not politics. Florida leads the nation in vaccinating seniors 65 and older.
“We’re going to continue to lead seniors in the country by giving vaccines to seniors,” he said. “Whoever wants it, whenever they want it, in every city, in every county, every walk of life, we’re going to continue to give the vaccine to seniors to save lives and get people out of this nightmare.