My 91-year-old mother got her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine Thursday.
She hadn’t been ready to do so before. I’m just relieved that when she made her decision an appointment became available.
I must say, though, that getting a spot required the patience of Job. How could the Publix website be jammed at 7 a.m., as soon as it went live? Then finally, after a signal to proceed, forms dutifully completed, store location selected, along with a convenient time, you slam into the vaccine appointment firewall. Sorry, all appointments have been taken at the store of your choice.
How far to cast the net? Largo, Clearwater, Tampa? Perhaps Poinciana? Kissimmee? Why not try Miami?
Or another day. Surprise. Frustration redux.
And Facebook friends, Publix is not taking reservations in their store lobbies. Publix spokeswoman Maria Brous tells me that appointments really are just being scheduled online, but that each store has “a check-in table where customers stop and check-in for their appointment before proceeding to the pharmacy.”
Needless to say, I didn’t get my mother a vaccine appointment at Publix. Instead, this past Monday, I received a surprise dinnertime email from the Florida Department of Health: “More vaccine appointments are available for the new Pinellas Central site,” it said. “This event is by invitation only. Book ASAP.”
Others must navigate a more tortuous course. Many lack computers or smart phones to make appointments online. They may not be tech-savvy. My mother, independent, intelligent and an avid reader of Tom Clancy, James Patterson and cozy British mysteries – in large print – is in this group. Then they’re those who don’t have a way to get to an inoculation site.
The Rev. Kenny Irby of Historic Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in St. Petersburg sums it up: “It’s about accessibility and the lack thereof. You see the inequity in the system and the kind of disconnect and tone-deafness of local bureaucrats and not thinking inclusively.”
For the underserved, especially those in Black, Hispanic and Indigenous communities – disproportionately affected by coronavirus-related illnesses and deaths – access to the vaccine can be difficult.
It’s why the fight is on for equitable distribution that will not only take the vaccine into overlooked communities, but consider such issues as transportation, communication and trust.
At the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, CEO Jaclyn Boland says the pop-up vaccine site it hosted last Saturday checked key boxes.
“Because we did it at our center, we didn’t use the (Health Department) portal to register. We heard from people that it was so easy. They didn’t encounter the challenge of any issues, especially for the 65-plus, the ones who didn’t have sons or daughters who could help them,” she said.
“Not everyone can navigate that system and on top of that, you put in the language barrier.”
This week, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist called a press conference to talk about the inequities that communities of color face with the vaccine rollout. The story of Florida’s vaccine distribution has not been one of fairness, he said, calling it “the civil rights issue of our time” and demanding “equal, equitable access.”
Crist, who has called for a U.S. Department of Justice investigation into Gov. Ron DeSantis’ pop-up sites, said at the press conference that “directing vaccines toward the politically connected and away from the millions of Floridians who have been waiting for months for this lifesaving vaccine is just plain wrong.”
The Rev. Watson Haynes, president and CEO of the Pinellas County Urban League and a member of the Pinellas Health Equity Council, recounted his futile attempts to get the vaccine through the traditional route. Haynes was eventually able to get his shots at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. It was the first pop-up site set up at an African-American church in St. Petersburg to help make vaccines more accessible to the Black community.
Irby, whose church has hosted one of the sites, says Black churches are a natural fit for the task. “We learned a lot by responding to needs and serving the community. We know from history that faith centers are a primary go-to venue for assistance,” he said.
Religious groups south of Ulmerton Road, including the Gathering of Pastors, the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance, Road to Calvary, Seven X 7, and Interfaith Tampa Bay, have facilitated the vaccine pop-ups, Irby said.
The newly formed Health Equity Vaccine Work Group is a collaboration of the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas, faith groups and Pinellas County.
Maggie Hall, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas, told me that health equity is important to the department.
“Our mission is to care for everyone in the community,” she said. “With churches, one thing that is very important, they have to do some of the work as a congregation. With Mount Zion, they set it up. They registered people. They provided a roster of who was coming. Then we do our part. It’s really a collaboration.”
This week, the Health Department delivered 350 vaccines to the Lao Arts and Cultural Center in St. Petersburg. Last Saturday, 252 vaccines went to the Hispanic Outreach Center.
Boland said such efforts are on target at places like the Hispanic center and other community and neighborhood family centers. “We already have the trust of the community and we are a place where people are used to coming,” she said. “Everyone feels welcome in their own language. Coming as they are.”
This Saturday, two additional African-American congregations in St. Petersburg will host vaccine sites. A partnership with the state Division of Emergency Management and Health Department will enable Bethel Community Baptist Church to offer 600 first doses.
“I have been fighting for it,” Bishop Manuel Sykes said, crediting State Rep. Michele K. Rayner for helping to make the vaccine site happen. “The only way we can reach our community is through organizations that are located in our community.”
Bethel Metropolitan Baptist Church will also offer first doses on Saturday, while second shots are being given at First Baptist Institutional Church and 20th Street Church of Christ.
Wanda Williams, a cancer survivor, praises the church vaccine sites. A Vietnam-era veteran, she had signed up for the coronavirus vaccine through the VA.
“I had been on the waiting list for about two months,” she said. Then she got an email from her congregation – Historic Bethel – that vaccines would be available at Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist on Jan. 16. She received one of 535 vaccines that day.
“We can fill 500 slots up in two days once the word is out,” Irby said. “The demand has far exceeded the supply.”
That’s the thing, many Black people and other people of color do want the vaccine. It’s simply a matter of making it as easily accessible as it is in rarified enclaves.