A group of Black pastors are urging Gov. Ron DeSantis to deliver adequate COVID-19 resources, such as state-run testing and vaccination sites, to communities disproportionately impacted by the virus.
“For nearly two years, we have served a population that has been closely and most easily plagued by the COVID-19 pandemic. We have witnessed and experienced firsthand the rollouts for vaccinations and testing failing to reach Florida’s communities of color and its most vulnerable,” the pastors wrote in a letter sent to the governor’s office last week.
“Yet in all of this, we have felt neglected by the state government to deliver their abundance of resources to our underserved areas, and rather give preferential treatment to others.”
The pastors are part of the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances, a group that says it reaches 15 counties, 1,200 churches and almost 60,000 Floridians.
They’re pointing to low vaccination rates among Black residents as an indicator of the need to provide state resources, outreach and assistance to the community, which has been disproportionately burdened by COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations throughout the pandemic.
“We’re not going to sit down, we’re not going to go home until we’ve sat down with the governor,” said Pastor Marcus R. McCoy Jr. of Greater Refuge Memorial Church in Orlando.
The governor’s office has agreed to meet with the pastors and is now arranging a date, McCoy said.
The faith leaders say that in their areas they’ve joined forces with advocacy groups and government officials to open drive-thru test sites and texting banks to get up-to-date COVID-19 information into their communities. They represent congregations across the state in Apopka, Daytona Beach, Deland, Gainesville, Jacksonville, Miami, Orlando, Tallahassee and Tampa.
When vaccines first rolled out in December 2020, Black pastors quickly formed a statewide network to call for equitable access at a time when doses were slow to arrive for Black and Hispanic residents, who had been hit hardest by the virus.
Then, white Floridians were 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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As similar disparities persist a year later, while the highly contagious omicron surge drives a record number of infections, the network of pastors is calling on the governor’s office to listen to their voices to find solutions.
“Governor, you vowed to work with and enlist the help of Black churches to aid the community’s vaccine effort, and here we are,” the letter said. “After ignoring our request for a meeting once before, we ask again for you to listen to our trusted voices and give us a seat at the table to find an immediate solution to support Florida’s communities in need.”
In a statement, the governor’s press secretary, Christina Pushaw, said she’s grateful for the group’s efforts and believes vaccination is a personal choice.
“The authors of this letter seem to imply that people who aren’t vaccinated would get vaccinated, if they were able to access vaccines,” Pushaw said. “But I would also point out that there are many people, of all races and ethnicities, who choose not to get vaccinated even though they have access to free COVID-19 vaccination.”
Health experts say there are several barriers to disadvantaged communities seeking COVID-19 resources, such as residents being unable to take unpaid time off to get tested or vaccinated, and the restricted hours and locations of some sites makes testing and vaccines inaccessible to many.
“This should not be a politically driven issue, but rather a leader providing for his people no matter race, gender, color or creed,” the letter said. “Every Florida citizen deserves the right to be effectively provided for.”
Times staff writer Ian Hodgson contributed to this report. The Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg provides partial funding for Tampa Bay Times stories on equity. It does not select story topics and is not involved in the reporting or editing.
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How to get tested
Tampa Bay: The Times can help you find the free, public COVID-19 testing sites in Citrus, Hernando, Hillsborough, Manatee, Pasco, Pinellas, Polk and Sarasota counties.
Florida: The Department of Health has a website that lists testing sites in the state. Some information may be out of date.
The U.S.: The Department of Health and Human Services has a website that can help you find a testing site.
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How to get vaccinated
The COVID-19 vaccine for ages 5 and up and booster shots for eligible recipients are being administered at doctors’ offices, clinics, pharmacies, grocery stores and public vaccination sites. Many allow appointments to be booked online. Here’s how to find a site near you:
Find a site: Visit vaccines.gov to find vaccination sites in your ZIP code.
More help: Call the National COVID-19 Vaccination Assistance Hotline.
Phone: 800-232-0233. Help is available in English, Spanish and other languages.
Disability Information and Access Line: Call 888-677-1199 or email DIAL@n4a.org.
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More coronavirus coverage
OMICRON VARIANT: Omicron changed what we know about COVID. Here’s the latest on how the infectious COVID-19 variant affects masks, vaccines, boosters and quarantining.
KIDS AND VACCINES: Got questions about vaccinating your kid? Here are some answers.
BOOSTER SHOTS: Confused about which COVID booster to get? This guide will help.
BOOSTER QUESTIONS: Are there side effects? Why do I need it? Here’s the answers to your questions.
PROTECTING SENIORS: Here’s how seniors can stay safe from the virus.
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