As Miami-Dade vaccinates younger residents for COVID, Black seniors feeling left behind

Bianca Padró Ocasio
·8 min read

During the pandemic, Romania Dukes has done it all for her West Perrine community: hand out food boxes, help combat gun violence, distribute masks.

But helping the Black senior citizens in this South Miami-Dade neighborhood get vaccinated has proven to be her toughest challenge yet.

Most residents have no transportation, while most vaccine sites only allow residents with cars. Residents say the county government has little presence in the neighborhood and eligible residents too often rely on word-of-mouth information they get from neighbors and grandchildren.

And while the county vaccine site at Zoo Miami is nearby, the registration process is open to everyone, and affluent, digital-savvy residents often grab the first slots. There’s only one small clinic operating as a vaccination site in West Perrine, offering a limited number of appointments to seniors, many of whom are still not convinced by the science.

While Miami-Dade County is reaching nearly 45% of residents 65 and older who have received their first dose as of Tuesday, according to the COVID-19 Dashboard created by epidemiologist Jason Salemi, and Jackson Health System is expanding access to at-risk residents over 55, Dukes and other residents in South Miami-Dade are sounding the alarm over what they say is a continued lack of vaccine access in their neighborhoods.

Only 8 percent of Black residents have been vaccinated in county

Even though the county and Jackson Health System have tried to correct the disparities by partnering with Black churches and community groups, vaccination rates in majority-Black communities, like West Perrine, which is 54% Black, still lag those of white and more affluent neighborhoods. Miami-Dade County is 17% Black, but only 7.6% of residents who’ve been vaccinated, including those who’ve received the first dose or both doses, are Black, according to the state’s data as of Feb. 24.

Statewide, only 5.6 percent of those who’ve been vaccinated are Black, even though Blacks account for 17 percent of the state’s population, state records show.

“They knock on doors when it’s time to vote for them, but not knock on doors to [educate] so many African-American people,” Dukes said. “You got people coming from each state ... to get the vaccine first, when you just started out in these African-American communities. And they’re in the back of the line — or not in line.”

County leaders have turned to Dukes because she is a well-known advocate against gun violence in her community. She says she’s been invited to virtual calls with county officials and health executives alike, to help her connect “her seniors,” as she calls them, to government resources.

“Someday, they will call you. ‘We have 10 slots left. Do you know anybody 65 and older to get it?’ And I’m like, ‘Yes, I know a lot of people,’ ” Dukes said. “Why can’t I pick 100? Why can’t you just set up [in the neighborhood] and so those people could come get the shot?”

Lacking basic information on how to get the vaccine

The issue is not just about vaccine hesitancy among minorities because of historical mistrust in the health system, as many experts have explained. Dukes says many of West Perrine’s seniors don’t have basic information, like where to get the vaccine, who is eligible to get it, how effective it is or that minor side effects are common but are rarely serious or permanent. In fact, many of the people she often speaks to have never gotten tested, even as the virus has ravaged Black communities at a disproportionate rate.

“If [officials] take a walk and the time and come with people who are from the community to sit down and have a five-minute talk, I guarantee you are [going to have given] a test to over a hundred people within an hour or so. And then come back and make them comfortable enough to get the shot,” she said.

Churches have been a crucial part of the county’s strategy to vaccinate more Black residents. But some argue the scope is too limited, as it has mostly benefited congregations. The most sensible solution, several say, is expanding the county’s mobile vaccine site program, which allows for residents to walk up without an appointment.

Wilbur Bell, 81, standing at the Miami-Dade Democrats office in Perrine near Bell’s Plaza on Jan. 29, 2021. Bell is a longtime leader in his community and businessman who is helping spread the word to local seniors about the importance of getting the vaccine against COVID-19. He got vaccinated at Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights.
Wilbur Bell, 81, standing at the Miami-Dade Democrats office in Perrine near Bell’s Plaza on Jan. 29, 2021. Bell is a longtime leader in his community and businessman who is helping spread the word to local seniors about the importance of getting the vaccine against COVID-19. He got vaccinated at Second Baptist Church in Richmond Heights.

“The churches, they got a lot of stuff. But people don’t go to church. .. In the neighborhood, you have 200, 400 people from the church from the whole area,” said Wilbur Bell, 81, a West Perrine community leader and businessman. “They have not brought one mobile unit to the right community. You bring a mobile unit, like we do food giveaway … and let me know 24 hours, 48 hours ahead, people will line up to it.”

County setting up mobile vaccine sites in each district

Government officials are starting to listen. On Saturday, District 1 Commissioner Oliver G. Gilbert III hosted the first no-appointment mobile vaccination site in Miami Gardens. Hundreds of cars lined up in Carol City Park, while dozens of residents lined up in a separate walk-up line at the same place.

Teresa Mesino, 68, drove to the site and got there three hours before it was set to open, at 5 a.m., with two of her relatives, 82-year-old Gladis Mesino and 64-year-old Jose Cantillo, hoping all three of them could get a vaccine.

Gladis Mesino, 82, and Teresa Mesino, 68, wait in line inside a vehicle at the first walk-up mobile testing site open to Florida residents that won’t require appointments at Miami Carol City Park in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.
Gladis Mesino, 82, and Teresa Mesino, 68, wait in line inside a vehicle at the first walk-up mobile testing site open to Florida residents that won’t require appointments at Miami Carol City Park in Miami Gardens, Florida, on Saturday, Feb. 20, 2021.

“It hasn’t been easy. We’ve been trying to get appointments since they began giving out shots, every day,” said Teresa Mesino. “So we’ve been up since dawn today.”

The Miami Gardens event was the first of Miami-Dade’s new strategy to bring a mobile vaccination operation to each of the 13 county commission districts, Mayor Daniella Levine Cava said Friday during an online video briefing with the commission.

She also said plans are underway to deploy county “surge” teams that knocked on doors over the summer to promote COVID-19 testing and hand out masks. This time, the campaign would focus on the value of vaccines and could direct eligible residents to a mobile vaccination site able to register people on the spot.

As more seniors who are “ready and eager” for the vaccines get inoculated, Levine Cava said, “we are going to have to do more outreach” for others.

The federal government is also pledging to vaccinate 1,000 people a day in South Florida through a new vaccination center being set up at Miami Dade College North in March. On Tuesday, 2,985 people in Miami-Dade received their first vaccine shot, according to the Florida Department of Health’s Wednesday report, and 1,586 others got their second dose.

Miami-Dade County spokeswoman Rachel Johnson said the county would like to expand its mobile vaccination units to make it easier for seniors to get vaccinated. She said the units could also help the county bring vaccines to underserved areas that have low vaccination percentages.

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue vaccinating homebound seniors

Miami-Dade Fire Rescue employees have also helped vaccinate homebound seniors and have helped coordinate transportation for seniors who are not homebound but need help getting to their vaccination appointment.

The county has also created mobile vaccination units, which it has used to establish public housing vaccination pods. And the county has begun talking with ride-share companies about potential partnerships to help seniors get a ride to their vaccination appointment.

In West Perrine, the Community Health of South Florida’s West Perrine Health Center (CHI) is the only clinic in the neighborhood giving vaccines. The nonprofit has held webinars to educate Black residents about the benefits of getting vaccinated against COVID-19, and it has one mobile van that goes to public housing complexes to vaccinate eligible seniors.

We’ve been focusing on those housing complexes where we know that nobody is coming out,” said Saint Anthony Amofah, chief medical officer at CHI. “We’ve come up with a list of people who want to get the shot. We try to get more people, and then we go out.”

Amofah agreed with Dukes that even when there are options for seniors to sign up for the vaccine, education continues to be a barrier. While health workers at CHI have spoken directly with residents to give them information about receiving the vaccine, Amofah said it was crucial for health employees to speak directly to patients.

“Nobody’s doing that and some patients will never come out,” Amofah said.

Without more outreach from officials, Black seniors won’t be the only ones being left behind. As the state looks to broaden out its reach to younger demographics, some residents argue homebound seniors who are not at assisted living facilities have few options to be protected.

Struggling to get her 79-year-old mother vaccinated

Alicia Mendoza, 48, has been trying to get an appointment for her 79-year-old mom for weeks, without success. Mendoza lives in Maryland, and her mother lives alone in an apartment complex in the City of Miami, with no close family who live nearby.

She cannot stand for long periods of times because she has chronic conditions, like arthritis, and had a mini stroke in the past two years.

“I’ve been looking from Hialeah down to Homestead and I can’t find anything,” said Mendoza. “It’s frustrating when you see Jackson, ‘Oh we’re giving the vaccine to people over 55...’ And I’m like, ‘How?’ ”

Miami Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Michelle Marchante contributed to this story.