Task force calls for COVID-19 vaccine sites to expand to minority communities

Church leaders in Florida are pushing for more than 80 churches in under-served areas to become vaccination clinics.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Church leaders in Florida are pushing for more than 80 churches in under-served areas to become vaccination clinics.

This comes as Gov. Ron Desantis expands the number of vaccines going to grocery store giant Publix.

Church leaders say the governor and Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry aren’t doing enough to reach underserved communities with the vaccine.

As of Tuesday, more than 1.3 million Floridians had received their first dose of a vaccine. A report shows that only 66,000, or just under 5%, are Black.

“Those numbers are dismal, disturbing, and depressing,” said Reverend Dr. R.B. Holmes.

They are now working to get the federal government to provide enough doses to open these sites.

The leaders say it’s not political, it’s about saving lives.

Church leaders announced nine Northeast Florida locations where they say coronavirus vaccination clinics should be placed. The sites are all churches in minority communities in Jacksonville, Palatka, Hastings and Gainsville.

VIDEO: Church leaders in Florida are pushing for more than 80 churches in under-served areas to become vaccination clinics.

Florida’s point-man on vaccines said hesitancy is a problem for Black residents.

“Just because I put a site in an African-American community, it doesn’t guarantee access. The only way to guarantee access is to make sure that I am closing that pod,” said Director of the Division of Emergency Management Jared Moskowitz.

State Senator Audrey Gibson isn’t so sure.

“It’s not hard to look up data on demographics and target certain communities. We do that in political races all the time. So, there’s no reason for that not to have happened the way it should have,” said Gibson.

Pastor W.B. Wiggins’s church in Northwest Jacksonville is one of the proposed locations.

His church has been hit hard by the coronavirus and has had its doors closed for in-person service since last spring.

“We went from 100% to zero overnight with people being afraid to come into the building, not knowing whose around who,” Wiggins said.

He says his church is accessible to seniors living on the Northside of Jacksonville without transportation.

“You got to think some of them may not be able to drive or they may not have family members working during the day or they may have to take the bus. They have to get on more than one bus there and back,” Wiggins said.

But there’s still a question of where leaders will get the vaccines to open the sites. Leaders are hoping to get it straight from the federal government.

“On our task force, we have Congressman Al Lawson, Congressman Val Demmings. So, we are working with congressional delegations to make sure we do this right,” said former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown.

DeSantis announced Wednesday he plans to send vaccines to 30 more places of worship this week, including Black churches and synagogues in the state.

Responding to criticism of Publix grocers getting thousands of state vaccines – he said other grocery stores could receive some of the state supply of doses soon.

Curry tweeted that an announcement will be made Thursday, saying in part “I’ve been working diligently to secure more vaccine supply for our city & specifically, our underserved neighborhoods.”

It’s not yet where it will be or when it will open, but it will be somewhere on the Northside.

Pastor Darien Bolden Sr.’s church, the First Missionary Baptist Church in Fernandina Beach, is on DeSantis’ list of those soon to receive the vaccine. He says they’re ready for it.

“We have the facilities, we have the restrooms, we have the sanitizing machines along with hand sanitizers and everything else that would be needed, for a site,” Bolden Sr. said.

Head Pastor Zach Terry of First Baptist Church Fernandina Beach said they’ve been vaccinating for the past two Sundays.

“We’ve had over 150 total that we vaccinated,” Terry said.

Terry said the health department contacted him to help distribute leftover vaccine doses.

President Joe Biden’s administration announced Tuesday that it will expand access to COVID-19 vaccines by distributing them to 6,500 retail pharmacies next week.

Participating in the program are major chains like CVS, Walgreens, Walmart and Costco and supermarket pharmacies, including Publix and Walmart.

Floridians will soon start seeing a public service campaign, funded with $1.6 million in federal money, to encourage people to be vaccinated.

About the Authors:

Reports weekdays on The Morning Show

Kelly Wiley, an award-winning investigative reporter, joined the News4Jax I-Team in June 2019.