ST. PETERSBURG — When it became clear early on that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout wasn’t reaching communities of color, Rev. Kenny Irby got a call. The Pinellas County health department wanted his church, the oldest African American congregation in the city, to host a pop-up vaccination event.
Since then, Black churches across the area have been working to boost faith in the vaccines, with educational events and pastors rolling up their own sleeves for shots. The effort has shown results as the percentage of Black Floridians inoculated against the coronavirus has increased.
“That population is very close to their pastors,” said Carl Lavender, the chief equity officer at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. “They trust their pastors. They trust their churches.”
What happened in the churches has provided a template as local health departments start reaching deeper into communities to get people vaccinated. In Pinellas, that has taken the form of a health equity task force, charged with increasing vaccination rates in underserved areas across the county.
“It’s been a tremendously positive grassroots effort,” said Irby, pastor of Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg and a task force member.
By mid-April, 15 percent of Black residents in Pinellas had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, up from 9 percent a month earlier, according to a health department report shared with the task force.
Still, a racial disparity persists.
By comparison, 34 percent of white Pinellas residents had received at least one dose as of April 15, up from 20 percent the month prior. For residents 65 and older, the gap was slightly smaller with nearly 55 percent of Black seniors having received a dose compared to 60 percent of white seniors, according to the report.
In total, nearly 38 percent of county residents have received at least one shot and 24 percent have completed the series.
As younger adults have become eligible for shots, the early progress towards equity has stagnated, task force members say.
“That really is concerning,” said Irby. “We are struggling with the fact that a lot of the younger people have less trust in the government as we talk about the Black and brown communities.”
The task force “is a sounding board first and foremost to what the challenges are,” said Vernon Bryant, a member of the panel and executive director of Florida Botanical Gardens Foundation. He said members are asking: “What messaging do we need to have happen in order to get this demographic to get the vaccine?”
In response, members of the group have focused on organizing education campaigns. That includes joining with cultural institutions like the Carter G. Woodson African American Museum to host discussions, during which health department officials answer questions and debunk vaccine myths.
“We’re responding in intentional, thoughtful ways,” Irby said. “We’re not pondering but performing.”
The task force has met almost every other Friday since early February to plan vaccine outreach, guided by local ZIP code data and a Social Vulnerability Index produced by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The index uses census variables like poverty, crowded housing and transportation access to determine communities most vulnerable during disaster.
In addition to faith leaders, task force members also include representatives from community centers and health department staff.
“It’s a matter of trying to find where the barriers are and knocking them down,” said Tom Iovino, public information officer for the department.
In addition to making churches vaccination sites, community centers like the Hispanic Outreach Center and Lao Arts & Cultural Center have partnered with the department.
Two vaccine events hosted with the Hispanic Outreach Center have reached over 500 residents, said Jaclyn Boland, the center’s CEO. “We are targeting the Hispanic populations, those who might have difficulty getting the vaccines through the (online) portal or traditional methods.”
The vast majority of employees at the center speak Spanish and translators were available for nurses administering shots. It’s a place where the Hispanic community feels comfortable in a bilingual, bicultural setting, Boland said.
Throughout Pinellas, the percentage of residents vaccinated varies widely across zip codes, according to the county health department report.
The percentage of residents over 18 who have received at least one dose range from about 30 percent in Lealman to 85 percent in Tierra Verde, where 100 percent of seniors have received a shot.
In Hillsborough County, the health department’s Office of Health Equity partners with an array of organizations, including Tampa General Hospital, Moffitt Cancer Center and the county’s Metropolitan Planning Organization, as well as federally funded programs like Healthy Start aimed at improving racial disparities in infant mortality.
The goal of the office is to take into account not only physical health but the social determinants of health — factors such as income, education, discrimination and transportation — as well as the availability and quality of health services.
The office, established in 2010, is “trying to be more intentional about the inclusion of systematic racism and how that impacts inequities,” said Allison Nguyen, the program manager. They have discussed how implicit bias by providers impacts patient treatment.
“There’s a lot of history in our policies that were very segregationist and racist,” Nguyen said, citing examples such as redlining by mortgage companies and the oversaturation of fast food in lower income communities.
In order to better target the vaccine rollout to underserved communities, the office uses local ZIP code data similar to Pinellas, along with the vulnerability index. The department declined the Tampa Bay Times’ requests to provide that data and sent them to the Florida Department of Health in Tallahassee.
Health department officials in Pasco and Hernando counties declined similar requests, also referring questions to the state office. Pasco is in the beginning stages of its health equity effort, a spokeswoman said.
Efforts are also under way on the state level.
The state health department’s Office of Minority Health and Health Equity has begun working with local health departments to establish a minority health liaison in each county. A bill awaiting Gov. Ron DeSantis’ signature would make the liaisons a requirement.
Those individuals will work with government agencies, churches and other organizations to reduce disparities in the vaccine rollout and other areas of public health.
The bill calls for the state office to gather and analyze data concerning health disparities as well as develop programs and policy to address those inequities. It also requires the state to boost education campaigns about where gaps persist.
Inequities in health care existed well before the pandemic, said Nguyen, the program manager in Hillsborough. “It’s really the tip of the iceberg in terms of understanding what health inequity looks like.”
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.