President Joe Biden wanted 70 percent of American adults to get a coronavirus vaccination shot by Independence Day.
The nation fell short. The reasons why can be found in Gibsonton.
Jessica Morse, 33, has doubts that the vaccines are safe, though they have been proven effective against COVID-19. She’s a mother who runs her own landscaping and nursery business there and says she can’t afford the side effects.
“I can’t be sick for two days,” she said. “I have two businesses to take care of and a kid.”
Those reasons also can be found in Clearwater.
Thomas Hilton insisted his mother get vaccinated when volunteers offering shots knocked on her door earlier this year. But he’s 26 and healthy and doesn’t think he needs it.
“My mama got the shot,” he said. “That’s what matters to me.”
Gibsonton in semi-rural Hillsborough County and northwest Clearwater in dense Pinellas County are about an hour’s drive — and a world — apart.
But they share this: Both are among the least vaccinated ZIP codes in the region, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of state data.
They’re also next to neighboring ZIP codes with higher numbers of vaccinated residents. For Gibsonton, it’s the retirement enclave of Sun City Center. For that part of Clearwater, it’s the city next door, Dunedin.
Those four areas illustrate the disparities in race, wealth and age that help drive the vaccination gap. Times reporters asked residents in those communities why they have or haven’t gotten vaccinated.
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Gibsonton lies about 10 miles south of Tampa. Once, “Gibtown” was famous as the winter home of carnival performers. It’s also an industrial and port hub of ship berths and railroad tracks and, like the rest of south Hillsborough these days, rapidly succumbing to development.
“I think of it as the land that time forgot,” said Michael Webber, a 55-year-old insurance agent sipping a beer at Alafia Brewing Co. “The people out here aren’t the type to be told what to do.”
Eric Bolender, a 40-year-old automotive painter, was seated at the other corner of the bar. “If they go door to door with (vaccines) out here, someone might get shot,” he said. “People aren’t going to fall for that out here.”
Neither man has been vaccinated nor plans to do so.
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They are in the majority. Only 31 percent of the residents of the 33534 ZIP code have been vaccinated, according to state data. Just over 17,000 people live in the ZIP code, according to the 2019 U.S. Census, 20 percent in poverty. Hispanics make up 36 percent of the population, while Black residents make up 17 percent.
Most of those who live there are of working age.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Harry Cohen, whose District 1 includes Gibsonton, said the low vaccine rates there could be partly economic — he noted that less wealthy communities tend to have less access to information and quality healthcare — and partly cultural.
“There is a sort of individualistic streak that seems to run through Gibsonton in particular,” Cohen said, “and some people there who are very skeptical when the government tells them to do something.”
The county ran a pop-up vaccination site here periodically from January through May, but now the only place to get the shot is the Walmart Supercenter. A pharmacy worker there who did not want to be identified said they only vaccinate one or two people a day. It’s hard to know how much vaccine to keep on hand, she said, because they’ve had doses spoil waiting for customers.
Stephanie Shreves lost her father, 62-year-old Jeffery Case, to the virus last year. She sat with him as he died. But Shreves doesn’t plan to get vaccinated. Neither does her mother or grandmother.
“It’s just too new,” the 32-year-old said. “We’ve all discussed it, like all of us in my Iittle inner circle who live here, and we all feel the same way.”
A recent University of South Florida survey of Floridians found vaccine hesitancy is being driven by the reasons many Gibsonton residents shared with the Times: They believe the vaccines were produced too quickly, fear severe side effects or think it won’t protect them from the coronavirus.
The vaccines were created using established mRNA technology, and federal data shows severe or life-threatening reactions are rare. The Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines are more than 90 percent effective, and the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is more than 66 percent effective, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Surrounded by bubbling tubs of live shrimp, Augustin Garcia, 32, wore a mask while helping customers in his Gibsonton bait shop. He’s not vaccinated yet, but he might do it so he can visit family in his native Mexico. He doesn’t have time, though. He works morning to night at his shop.
“Where can I get it?” he asked.
Next door, Steven Rossi, 35, worked in his barbershop. He moved to Florida from Nevada about a year ago but said he wished he’d done more research. “I’m charging the least I’ve ever charged for a haircut in my life, and people here still can’t afford it. ... I don’t think they’re concerned with the vaccine.”
He is not vaccinated. “I’m a fundamentalist Christian. We’re still on the fence about it.”
One of his clients walked in for a haircut and joined the conversation.
“I’ll wait a year and see how the people who got the vaccine are doing,” said Rodney Sesler, 61, who retired from the Army.
Will Pierre, 33, is a resident of Gibsonton’s new subdivisions. He’s an information technology worker who moved here from Miami.
“I’m not surprised at all,” he said when told his new ZIP code is among Tampa Bay’s least vaccinated. “Personally, I trust science, I trust the vaccine, but I just haven’t gotten it yet. It’s just a matter of convenience.”
He recently planned to take his dad with him so they could both get their shots, “but then we ended up at Costco.”
At AJ’s on the River, bartender Aleisha Hawkins, 23, born and raised in Gibsonton, said she got vaccinated because her mother had COVID-19 and because she wanted to travel to Germany. Most of her customers say they won’t get it or will only get one dose to try to avoid side effects.
One dose of a two-dose vaccine, however, is less effective. A single dose of Pfizer or Moderna is estimated to be about 80 percent effective in preventing COVID-19 infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Out here you get in the mud, you get in the muck, you go fishing, whatever you touch you touch, and maybe you build up your immunity,” she said, “or that’s what people think.”
• • •
One of the most vaccinated ZIP codes in Tampa Bay is a 20-minute or so drive south on Interstate 75.
The area of 33573 is home to Sun City Center, a sprawling 55-and-up community where the lawns are manicured and golf carts the preferred mode of transportation.
Here, 93 percent of residents are vaccinated. Its population is bigger than the neighboring ZIP code’s, with 23,170 people living in 33573. Most residents are white (84 percent) and 65 or older (68 percent). Just 8 percent live in poverty. The population of Black and Hispanic residents stands at about 7 percent each.
Residents appear to have a lot of free time, as evidenced by the crowded lawn bowling courts. At the community pool, John Sauber, 76, and Tom Watkins, 68, chatted in the nearly blinding sun as Watkins sipped a yellow drink ordered from a nearby window. People enjoyed the hot tub.
Social distancing seemed long ago, Sauber said.
He got a vaccine the first week they were available at a state pop-up clinic outside the Sun City Center Community Association building. The association sent him an email telling him when to show up.
“It wasn’t a long wait,” Sauber said. “Very easy, very organized. I never even had to get out of the car.”
Watkins said he contracted COVID-19 late last year. He had to wait for several negative tests before he could get vaccinated, then got a shot at his doctor’s office.
In Sun City Center, he said, they take the vaccines seriously: “Around here, if you didn’t have it, people kept asking you, when are you getting it?”
Tess Silverman, 95, said she drove her golf cart to get a vaccine at the community association. She received a phone call telling her when to be there, based on her last name.
“We were all very concerned about passing it on to somebody else,” said Silverman, who recently celebrated her 75th wedding anniversary with her husband Paul, 97. “This is an older population.”
Volunteer dispatcher Austin Ambrosino, 73, who works the desk at the Sun City Center Security Patrol, said the community always took the pandemic seriously.
“This place was shut down completely during COVID,” said the retiree and Pennsylvania native. He said he’d be shocked to find a neighbor there who hadn’t been vaccinated.
• • •
The ZIP code 33755 falls over the city of Clearwater’s northwest quadrant. More than 26,600 people live here, less than a quarter of the city’s population.
It is the least vaccinated ZIP code in Pinellas County: Just 35 percent of residents have taken a vaccine.
It is home to the North Greenwood neighborhood, which is predominantly Black, and part of East Gateway, which is predominantly Hispanic. About 23 percent of the ZIP code is Black and 22 percent is Hispanic. It is an area where roughly a quarter of the residents live in poverty.
Residents in both neighborhoods were reluctant to speak to a Times reporter and didn’t want their names to be used.
”I’m not comfortable with how fast they were created and rolled out,” said a North Greenwood resident who declined to share his name. Another reason he won’t get vaccinated is that he contracted the coronavirus and has since recovered: “The antibodies are enough for me.”
The pandemic hit communities of color particularly hard, with Black residents in Pinellas County at one point 2.5 times more likely to contract the coronavirus than white residents, according to state data. It was one of the largest disparities in Florida.
For Black people, doubts about the vaccines may be rooted in historical medical mistreatment by doctors and government-backed institutions, historians say, such as the Tuskegee Experiment, during which Black men were intentionally denied treatment for syphilis beginning in the 1930s.
“There’s still mistrust in the governmental processes,” said Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the University of South Florida’s Taneja College of Pharmacy.
Thomas Hilton said he’s fortunate to have avoided the coronavirus and doesn’t believe a vaccine is necessary for him. While he encouraged his mother to get vaccinated, he won’t.
”At my age, I’m more scared of a needle than I am of the vaccine.”
Sneed and his team are trying to figure out ways to reach younger people like Hilton who have opted not to receive a shot. That concern is driven in part by the emergence of the delta strain of COVID-19, which is believed to be more transmissible and more virulent. Sneed said he’s worried it will cause long-term physical, psychological and neurological damage to young, unvaccinated people ages 18 to 49.
The state data for 33755 doesn’t make sense to Zeb Atkinson IV, the NAACP president of the Clearwater/Upper Pinellas branch. Everyone he knows in the North Greenwood area is vaccinated, he said. Health officials teamed up with pastors to make several vaccination pushes in the neighborhood, he said.
But the data from three vaccine pop-up clinics mirrors a state and national trend: Fewer people are getting the vaccine since the rollout began. On March 31, there were 240 shots given out. Then, just 15 in May and 10 this month. Young people seem to be slower to roll up their sleeves than their elders, he said.
Barriers also are keeping Hispanic residents in East Gateway, most with family origins from Mexico and Central America, from getting vaccinated. Some don’t know how to make an appointment, and some imagine it will cost too much.
“Most of the people, they would like to get it but they don’t even know what to do,” said Eleuterio Rodriguez, a former president of the Florida Federation of Hidalguenses.
“Sometimes, they don’t speak English,” he said, “and sometimes, they don’t even know they can get it for free.”
Vicky Obando, a family advocate with the Hispanic Outreach Center in Clearwater, said some families rely on their faith for protection against the virus. And some of those who fell ill after the first dose refused to get the second.
“Most of the time, they don’t feel like they need to get the vaccine,” she said.
• • •
The border between Clearwater and Dunedin runs along Union Street. Most of Dunedin’s estimated 36,000 residents live in 34698, which has about 2,000 more residents than the city.
The Dunedin side of Union Street is a different world: 58 percent of residents are vaccinated; just 9 percent live in poverty; 5 percent of residents are Hispanic; and 3 percent are Black.
Susie Garris, 63, has spent half her life living in Dunedin. She said getting vaccinated was one of the easiest decisions she’s ever made.
“It was the first step to return to normalcy,” she said. She got her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in April, as soon as her age group was eligible. She said she had no side effects from the first or second jab. She started traveling again and recently visited Asheville, N.C. She spoke to a reporter at the Dunedin Downtown Market, which she visited with a friend, maskless.
“It’s so nice being able to be back out there again,” she said.
Still, even the vaccinated don’t want to talk about why they got the shot. More than a dozen people who spoke to a Times reporter said they didn’t want their vaccination status made public.
”I’d be lectured by my husband if he found out,” said a vaccinated woman in her 30s who did not disclose her name.
• • •
In the U.S., 67 percent of adults had received vaccine shots as of the Fourth of July.
How far behind the president’s goal is Florida? Here, 65 percent of adults have received one coronavirus vaccine shot, while 56 percent are fully vaccinated, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
But state ZIP code data reveals the weak spots in Florida’s vaccination efforts: There are pockets of unvaccinated residents across the state. Less than half the residents in 60 percent of ZIP codes have received one vaccination shot. In 20 percent of ZIP codes, it is fewer than one out of every three residents.
In those pockets, scores of unvaccinated residents living next to each other leaves them vulnerable to future COVID-19 outbreaks, especially from the delta variant.
An Associated Press analysis found the unvaccinated account for the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths. Undervaccinated areas will bear the future brunt of the pandemic.
Places like Gibsonton and northwest Clearwater worry epidemiologists like University of Florida researcher Cindy Prins the most.
“That’s why we need to keep our foot on the gas and keep people getting vaccinated,” she 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.
About the data
The Florida Department of Health turned over vaccination data by ZIP code as of June 9. The Times analysis compared vaccination numbers to 2019 demographic data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The data covers 983 of Florida’s 992 non-PO Box ZIP codes. The missing ZIP codes either don’t appear in the vaccination data or are too small to include demographic data from the census. The ZIP code data tracks how many in Florida have received one shot of a coronavirus vaccine. It does not track how many are fully vaccinated.
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