Suddenly, everyone wants to reach Black seniors to help them get COVID-19 vaccines in South Florida.
First the federal government said it is opening a mass vaccination site at Miami Dade College’s North Campus to reach more of the Black community, starting next week. Then the state followed on Thursday with six smaller sites it will open in Black and Hispanic communities, including one in Miami’s Overtown neighborhood.
There are other vaccine distribution developments, too: Retail pharmacies offering shots now include Navarro Discount Pharmacy and CVS Pharmacy y más, an appeal to the Hispanic community. High-risk residents between 55 and 65 will be able to get vaccines through Jackson Health System, and teachers and police officers over 50 will — finally — be eligible for the shots.
It’s tempting to jump up and cheer. The county has even improved its standing in just a few weeks from having 27 percent of people 65 and older vaccinated with at least one shot to about 45 percent. That’s good news.
But let’s review.
Hold the applause
More than 30,000 people in Florida have died from COVID. Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to allow local governments to enforce mask mandates. The vaccine rollout has been confusing and geared to the digitally savvy, excluding many older folks. There’s still no public plan for who is next in line for the life-saving shots. And Black seniors, across the state and in Miami-Dade, continue to lag terribly in vaccine rates.
Still feel like applauding? Neither do we.
It’s particularly hard to understand, two months into this process, why Black seniors are only now getting this rush of attention. As Miami Herald reporter Bianca Padro Ocasio wrote Thursday, Miami-Dade’s population is 17 percent Black, but only 7.6 percent of vaccinated residents have been Black, according to the state’s own data from Feb. 24.
And it’s not much different in the rest of the state. Only 5.6 percent of Florida’s Black senior citizens have been vaccinated, even though the state’s population, like Miami-Dade’s, is about 17 percent Black.
The county and Jackson are trying to bridge that gap, working with Black churches and community groups. But the obstacles are real. Vaccine hesitancy exists, especially in Black communities, where there’s a well-founded historical distrust of the health system. Transportation to vaccine sites is a problem, and so is access to computers. A sustained effort by the state could overcome a lot of that.
As Romania Dukes, a community activist in majority-Black West Perrine, noted to the Herald, no one seems to have trouble finding the Black community when they need votes.
Trolling for votes
All the while, the governor has continued to pop up in one senior-rich community after another, unveiling the latest location where the still-scarce shots will be available. DeSantis is up for reelection in 2022, and it shows with every “Seniors First” sign slapped on the podium at his press conferences.
U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist, the one-term Florida governor now in Congress, even asked the U.S. Department of Justice Sunday to investigate whether DeSantis’ “blatantly political vaccine distribution decisions” violate federal law. Crist, a Democrat who may be considering a run for governor next year, made the request after DeSantis set up a vaccine site reserved for residents of a predominately white and wealthy area of Manatee County.
Florida, like every other state, knew for months that the vaccines were coming. Getting to this point, with the county’s vaccination rate finally hitting the state average and a new focus on vaccines in the Black community, shouldn’t have been so hard. Seniors still shouldn’t have to sit in cars for hours to get a shot, as happened last weekend in Miami Gardens at the county’s first, no-appointment mobile-vaccination effort. And the sign-up process shouldn’t be tilted toward affluent residents.
What’s the plan?
All of these issues would be helped if Florida would tell its residents and institutions what the plan is for vaccinations. As the Tampa Bay Times reported this week, an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation showed that every state except for Florida has done that.
In Florida, essential workers don’t know when they will get their chance, nor do people under 65. The uncertainty is particularly hard as Florida International University and other large employers head back to in-person work soon.
A lot of vaccine distribution depends on the flow of shots to the state. But the governor’s vote-banking tour isn’t a plan. Florida deserves a transparent, thought-out set of steps to get the population, especially the Black community, vaccinated so we can start to put this deadly disease behind us.