ST. PETERSBURG — When news came of the coronavirus vaccine approvals, Barbara Williams was hesitant.
It seemed as though the pharmaceutical companies were taking their time to develop the vaccines, but then, “all of a sudden, the approval of it came out of nowhere,” Williams said.
At 69 and a survivor of stage 3 ovarian cancer, the St. Petersburg native had questions. But after losing six family members this year, including two to COVID-19, the dangers of contracting the virus outweighed the potential side effects of the vaccine.
And once her daughter, a medical doctor, took the vaccine and felt okay, Williams decided she’d get it when her turn comes. She’s putting faith in the same medical system that held her up as she battled cancer — the doctors who planned her care and the nurses who turned on gospel music to ease her pain.
“They are my life-saving team,” said Williams.
In a September race and health survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation, half of Black adult respondents said they would not get vaccinated against the virus. Only 17 percent said they definitely would take the vaccine, despite the pandemic’s hard hit on the Black community.
But a December poll by the same group showed that their trust had increased. More than 60 percent of Black adults said they would probably or definitely get a coronavirus vaccination.
“My initial thought was, how can you come up with a vaccine so quickly,” said Ruby Hope, a St. Petersburg resident and retired nurse of 40 years. As time passed, she researched the websites of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Florida Department of Health.
“Knowledge is powerful,” said Hope. “I’m a little bit more confident than what I was.”
This summer in Tampa Bay, Black adults were almost three times as likely as white adults to contract the coronavirus, according to Florida Department of Health data. Today, the number of cases among Black adults in Pinellas County is about 1.5 times higher than among white adults. And the case count for Asian and Pacific Islander adults is nearly two times greater than for white adults.
At first glance, the data suggests that local racial disparities have shrunk over the past few months. But the number of cases for which the race of the individual was unknown has skyrocketed, and the cause is unclear.
“That impacts us knowing what the true disparity is,” said Stephanie Reed, a researcher with UNITE Pinellas, an organization aimed at improving income and race equity. The group tracks COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths by race and ethnicity.
While those in long-term care facilities and frontline health care workers are the state’s first priority for vaccinations, the state and federal government and local county health departments have signaled plans to reach communities disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus.
In November, President-elect Joe Biden selected Marcella Nunez-Smith, a Yale researcher and health care inequality expert, to help lead the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board, placing the disproportionate impacts of the virus at the forefront of the administration’s pandemic response.
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Florida has yet to release its final vaccine distribution plan, but a draft plan published in October said: “Since COVID-19 has had a disproportional impact on minority groups, minority populations will also be a focus of these efforts.”
In Hillsborough County, “vulnerable populations” make up part of the second priority category, according to the Hillsborough County Commission. It will focus on areas with a high incidence of the virus that have limited access to health services, as well as race and ethnicity.
In Pinellas County, the Department of Health is partnering with community organizations, including the Pinellas County Urban League and the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, to help bridge the gaps.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Urban League has facilitated seven popup COVID-19 testing sites with the help of the University of South Florida’s College of Nursing. It’s an effort to expand access, said Watson Haynes, the League’s president and CEO. The Urban League plans a similar operation when coronavirus vaccines are available.
COVID-19 education campaigns and mask distribution are also part of the effort to slow the spread of the virus. And conversations about the vaccine within the Black and Hispanic communities have chipped away at the distrust.
Organizations with deep roots in the community are playing a key role in that process.
ReachUP, Inc. — a Tampa-based organization focused on mobilizing resources to achieve equality in health care — began its outreach in March.
“We wanted the community to know about the coronavirus, what it was and the way it impacted communities of color,” said Deborah Austin, the organization’s director of community engagement.
As approval of the vaccines drew closer, its webinars — done in partnership with Dr. Kevin Sneed, the dean of USF Health’s College of Pharmacy — began to focus solely on that. Churches, fraternities, sororities and other local groups have engaged in these dialogues.
“When people have doubts, they can reach out and ask the burning question,” said Austin.
The information sessions — which have garnered a national audience — are aimed at “overcoming some of the mistrust and, more importantly, the misinformation” spreading on social media, said Sneed. He also points to decades of social injustice as a root cause for hesitancy within communities of color to participate in clinical trials and be vaccinated.
The phenomenon of African Americans being used as subjects for experimental medical treatment without their consent dates back to slavery, said Gwendolyn Reese, president of the African American Heritage Association of St. Petersburg.
From reports that J. Marion Sims — known as the “father of modern gynecology” — who in the 1840s performed experiments on enslaved Black women without anesthesia to the Tuskegee experiment in the 1930s, where Black men with syphilis were denied treatment, “all of that is very, very real,” said Reese.
“There is a history, and it continues to this day,” she said. But today, “it’s not so much experimenting, but that the health care we provide (Black patients) is often not what would be provided to a white person with the same symptoms.”
Despite the historical mistreatment, Reese trusts the vaccine and has been vaccinated against the coronavirus already.
Hope, the retired nurse, said the Black community’s lack of trust and engagement with the health care system is a multifaceted obstacle. It includes everything from access to care to not being able to take time off work to make health care a priority.
“Sometimes the priority is just as detrimental as the lack of trust in a person’s health journey,” Hope said.
The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.