- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
To stay connected with our comprehensive coverage of COVID-19 in Florida, sign up for our Coronavirus Watch newsletter.
Florida has “neglected” Black communities during the COVID-19 pandemic while giving “preferential treatment to others,” a group of pastors wrote Tuesday in a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking to speak with him about how to better help Black people.
“We have witnessed and experienced firsthand the rollouts for vaccinations and testing failing to reach Florida’s communities of color and its most vulnerable,” stated the letter written by the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances.
Just 42% of Black residents have received at least one vaccine dose, the state Health Department reported Friday. That is far below the rate of white people, including white Hispanics, which is at least 58%.
The deadly respiratory disease has killed 285 out of every 100,000 Black Floridians. Whites' mortality rate is 273 per 100,000.
“We have worked with local governments and community organizations to create better access to … resources," the letter further stated. "Yet in all of this, we have felt neglected by the state government to deliver their abundance of resources to our underserved areas, and rather give preferential treatment to others.”
Pastors letter echoes previous frustration expressed by Black leaders in Florida
The pastors' letter echoed frustration previously expressed by some Black leaders across Florida about what they call a lack of cooperation from state officials to work with them, their churches and other organizations within their communities.
“I’ve been very disappointed because there seems to be no … real process of talking to leaders, valuing the voices of faith leaders,” said one co-signer, the Rev. J.R. Thicklin, president of the Palm Beach County Clergy Alliance. And if DeSantis does listen to faith leaders, he said, “he has his own particular group he leans towards.”
Florida can get a lot more Black people vaccinated and tested if officials worked directly with Black church leaders, the pastors contend. Neither DeSantis or state health officials have met with members of their group, they say.
“The letter is in part to ask him to start developing (state-run) testing sites,” pastor Marcus R. McCoy, Jr. of Greater Refuge Memorial Church in Orlando said, “and to invite him to meet with us to look at solutions, not only to remedy issues now, but issues to come.”
Governor’s aides are scheduling a meeting with the pastors, McCoy said.
“We are not trying to tell the governor what to do," McCoy added. "We just want to have a conversation … to see if in fact they have the necessary tactics to be successful. You can't use the same tactics everywhere. What works in Pinellas (County) may not work in Orange (County).”
The letter was co-signed by 12 faith leaders who said they represented 1,200 churches and about 60,000 people statewide.
DeSantis' office rejects idea that Black communities have been ignored
DeSantis’ office said the state has worked with Black organizations to deliver vaccines to their communities. They point to efforts the state undertook in January 2021, for example, when it sent vaccines to seven predominantly Black churches.
“During the early phases of the vaccine rollout, (Department of Emergency Management) personnel went into many of these communities,” DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw said, “and knocked on doors to offer direct help to individuals who wanted to protect themselves but had questions about vaccines or faced obstacles to getting the vaccine, such as a lack of reliable transportation.”
Last February, DeSantis and ex-NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin announced in the former football player’s hometown of Pahokee that the state would open a vaccination site in the majority Black rural town of about 5,500.
But that came after mayors of the majority Black Glades-area cities in Palm Beach County, including Pahokee, criticized DeSantis for making Publix supermarkets the main source of vaccines statewide. The grocery chain has no locations in the Glades.
In March, DeSantis’ office announced a list of nine churches in “underserved communities” the state would work with to administer about 60,000 vaccine doses.
Most Publix locations; Walmart stores; CVS and Walgreen’s stores; and pharmacies offer the vaccine for free.
Florida lists inoculation gap between racial groups
Still, Florida has the second-biggest inoculation gap between Blacks and whites out of 42 states analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on health issues.
While racial information is unavailable for 17% of vaccine recipients statewide, a Palm Beach Post analysis of ZIP code-level data from the state has shown that fewer people in majority Black communities have received their shots.
Just 52% of residents in majority Black ZIP codes had gotten shots as of Nov. 4, compared to 64% in white ZIP codes.
In Palm Beach County, the least-vaccinated places are in the Glades, where the rate ranges from 43% in South Bay to 60% in Belle Glade as of Dec. 31, Florida Department of Health data shows.
On the county’s urbanized east side, inoculation rates in ZIP codes with the area’s highest concentration of Black residents is in the mid-60% range.
About 77% of eligible residents countywide had gotten at least one shot, the data shows.
Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, a Boynton Beach infectious disease specialist, believes that DeSantis’ early push to vaccinate elderly people first helped exacerbate the inoculation gap between Blacks and whites statewide.
An estimated 73% of Florida residents ages 65 and older are white, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show, compared to 53% of the total population.
“The push from the very beginning did not include African-Americans,” Kiminyo said. “It wasn't targeted for people out in the Glades or people out in Riviera Beach,” the majority Black city north of West Palm Beach.
Kiminyo said his group, the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society, reached out to the DeSantis administration early in the pandemic to offer help in serving Palm Beach County’s Black communities, but they never got a reply.
Pushaw the DeSantis aide attributed low vaccination rates among Blacks in part to their personal choice not to get inoculated.
“There is often an assumption that people who aren’t vaccinated would get vaccinated if they were able to access vaccines,” she said. “But … there are many people, of all races and ethnicities, who choose not to get vaccinated even though they have access to free COVID-19 vaccination.”
None of the approved vaccines have been shown to cause harm, in contradiction to concerns some racial minorities expressed in early 2021 at the outset of the vaccination push in Florida and elsewhere.
Health experts say vaccine promotion among Black communities lags
Kiminyo and others do not believe that Black Floridians want the vaccine less than whites.
“There’s always gonna be some people who … are still reluctant to get the vaccine,” he said. “But more often than not, when I as a Black physician talk to a black or brown patient who has questions, you are able to address those questions truthfully.”
And that gives a hesitant person more confidence to get the shot, he said.
Pastor McCoy of the group that sent the letter to DeSantis said getting vaccinated is less convenient for Black people. “Some of these places close early, at 5 o'clock,” he said. “And some people are working and don't have the convenience to be able to wait in long lines for vaccinations and testing.”
And Florida lacks high-profile Black officials relaying the facts, Kiminyo said, calling out Florida Surgeon General Dr. Joseph Ladapo.
“Here's someone who doesn't wear a mask," Kiminyo said. "Someone who doesn't take the pandemic as seriously as most of us do.”
That kind of mixed messaging from government officials sows doubt in people, said Thicklin, the Palm Beach County pastor.
“If you start saying, ‘Hey you don't have to wear masks,’ Black people say, ‘See, I told you it was a hoax all along,’” he said.
After initially pushing immunizations, DeSantis has downplayed the importance of the vaccine to the point of coming across as anti-vaccine. He signed bills into law that block cities from instituting public mask mandates; allowed the state to fine businesses accused of requiring proof of vaccination; and sued the federal government to block President Joe Biden’s vaccine mandate of big businesses and hospitals.
Yet COVID-19 vaccination rates among Black people in some southern states are much higher than Florida's, in part because state officials worked with local community groups.
In Mississippi, about 57% of Black residents and 52% of whites have gotten at least one shot as of Jan. 10, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported.
The U.S. state with the highest share of Black residents, Mississippi, where 38% of Mississippians identify as Black, achieved racial inoculation parity within the first few months of 2021. Leaders of organizations within Black communities said that when they met with state health officials, their concerns and ideas were taken seriously, Mississippi Today reported in April.
Black leaders “stepped up and they got vaccinated,” State Health Officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs told Mississippi Today. “They did it publicly and they spoke about it. And they let us know what we need to do as far as making vaccines available within their communities.”
No such meeting has happened between Florida health officials and members of the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances, their pastors’ letter said, and DeSantis ignored a past request from them to meet.
Chris Persaud is a data reporter for The Palm Beach Post.
This article originally appeared on Palm Beach Post: COVID: Pastors urge DeSantis to work with them, help Black Floridians