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Local pastors call for more vaccinations in communities of color

Doses are slow to arrive for Black and Hispanic residents, who have been hit hardest by COVID-19. “It’s inhumane.”
Residents wait in line to be vaccinated last Saturday at the Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg.
Residents wait in line to be vaccinated last Saturday at the Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Rev. Kenny Irby ]
Published Feb. 3
Updated Feb. 3

ST. PETERSBURG — A coalition of pastors on Wednesday called for a more robust response from state government in getting COVID-19 vaccines to Florida’s Black and brown communities.

Vaccine distribution has fallen far short in those communities, given that they have been hit hardest by the deadly virus, said Rev. Wayne G. Thompson of First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg.

“The fact is that the services are not readily available to our communities where we live,” said Thompson, who was flanked by other local pastors during a news conference at his church.

A group of Tampa Bay area pastors held a news conference Wednesday calling for more vaccine doses in communities of color. From left, they are Bishop Earl Mills of New Congregational Church of God, Pastor Troy Adams of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, Rev. Wayne G. Thompson of First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg, Rev. Manuel Sykes of the Bethel Community Baptist Church and Bishop Thomas Scott of the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa. Not pictured is Rev. Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church.
A group of Tampa Bay area pastors held a news conference Wednesday calling for more vaccine doses in communities of color. From left, they are Bishop Earl Mills of New Congregational Church of God, Pastor Troy Adams of New Jerusalem Baptist Church, Rev. Wayne G. Thompson of First Baptist Institutional Church in St. Petersburg, Rev. Manuel Sykes of the Bethel Community Baptist Church and Bishop Thomas Scott of the 34th Street Church of God in Tampa. Not pictured is Rev. Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church. [ MARGO SNIPE | Times ]

In Florida, white Floridians have been about twice as likely to receive the first vaccine dose as Black and Hispanic residents, despite experiencing lower numbers of COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The six pastors in attendance at Wednesday’s news conference have coordinated with the Statewide COVID-19 Vaccine Community Engagement Task Force, led by Rev. R. B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. The group is pushing state officials to place vaccination sites in traditionally underserved communities, and has identified 80 possible venues.

As part of those efforts, pastors from across different denominations in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties have volunteered their churches to serve as distribution sites. They also have called for more doses and let people know that they’ve been inoculated themselves, hoping to build trust in their congregations.

“Our people trust our venues,” Thompson said. “Our people trust our voices.”

He said he sees the vaccine rollout as an opportunity for society to stop overlooking communities that have historically been neglected on many fronts, including economic development, education and health care.

Some predominantly Black churches in the area have received vaccines, including St. Petersburg’s Mount Zion Progressive Missionary Baptist Church and Historic Bethel AME Church as well as Tampa’s St. John’s Progressive Missionary Baptist Church. But the number of doses offered at a time has been limited to 500.

Vaccinations being distributed at the Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg on Jan. 30.
Vaccinations being distributed at the Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg on Jan. 30. [ Courtesy of Rev. Kenny Irby ]

When First Community Baptist Church of Palmetto announced their church would be used as a vaccination site, all the slots were gone within hours, said Pastor J. H. Smalley, whose church was the first in the area to receive doses.

Despite some initial mistrust around receiving the vaccine, often due to medical mistreatment of people of color by government-backed institutions, both the need and demand for vaccines in those communities is high.

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“The opportunity is not there” for communities of color to get vaccinated, said state Rep. Michele Rayner, D-St. Petersburg, who led the effort to make First Community Baptist Church in Manatee County a vaccination site.

Some of the Manatee residents who were vaccinated at the church last Sunday said they had given up on the process before hearing the church would be a distribution site. Some had signed up for the county lottery and were never called. Others recalled the notorious Tuskegee experiment from 1932 to 1972, which systematically left Black men with syphilis untreated.

But when an opportunity arose, they lined up for the vaccine.

“I’d rather get the vaccine than get COVID,” said Carnegie Carolyn, who has underlying health conditions.

The pastors at Wednesday’s news conference noted that — outside of a few churches — Florida’s vaccination sites haven’t been easily accessible for the congregations they serve.

“In Black and brown communities, there are no Publix,” said Bishop Thomas Scott, pastor of 34th Street Church of God in Tampa. Earlier this week, the grocery store chain announced Pinellas and Pasco county locations will soon offer vaccines in addition to previously announced locations in Hernando County. Hillsborough County has yet to be added to the Publix vaccination program.

Many communities of color face limited access to grocery stores in general.

So far, it appears those hit hardest by the virus are receiving only crumbs in the vaccine process, said Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “It’s inhumane.”

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.

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