FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The predominantly Black farming communities on Lake Okeechobee's shores are at least 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the nearest Publix supermarket — and that's a problem, as Gov. Ron DeSantis has given the chain sole distribution rights for the coronavirus vaccine in Palm Beach County.
That prompted the mayors of Belle Glade, Pahokee and South Bay to send DeSantis a letter this week, asking him to expand the county's distribution network as it will be impossible for many senior residents of these low-income towns to get their shots. Some say that is a problem in poor communities statewide.
They want Florida to set up distribution sites in more low-income regions like it is doing in other parts of the state. DeSantis, for example, held a news conference Wednesday to announce that two sites would be set up in primarily white senior communities near Tampa and Orlando. The state has limited the vaccine to residents 65 and older and frontline medical providers.
Sugarcane is king in Belle Glade and its neighboring communities — more than half of the U.S. production comes from the region. About 5,000 of the combined 32,000 residents are 65 or older, according to the Census Bureau, and the median household income is about $26,000. That is right at the federal poverty line for a family of four.
“Why should folks in the Glades community have to drive 35, 40 miles to get the vaccine? Everybody don't have a Publix,” said Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson on Wednesday. He said his region has Walgreens and CVS drugstores that could be used. “You are talking about seniors, 65 or older, who may not be able to drive.”
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents the area, said she fears DeSantis will put Publix in charge of distribution in the nearby rural counties of Hardee, Hendry and Glades even though the chain doesn't have stores there, either.
“I am happy that Publix is involved, but it shouldn't be the only one,” she said. “I don't understand.”
Publix declined comment Wednesday on vaccine distribution in the Belle Glade area, referring questions to the governor’s office.
DeSantis said Palm Beach County signed off on the Publix plan two weeks ago, as about 90% of its seniors live within 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) of a Publix, by far the state's largest grocery chain and a major donor to DeSantis's political action committee. There are 67 Palm Beach County Publix stores distributing the vaccine — but it does not have any stores in the county's northwest corner.
DeSantis’s press office did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Wednesday.
On Wednesday, DeSantis visited Sun City Center, a predominately white retirement community near Tampa, where he said a vaccination site would administer shots to its 24,000 residents. He said another would be serve the 15,000-resident Solivita senior community near Orlando. The median household incomes in those communities is $50,000.
The Black community in Palm Beach County is grossly underrepresented among its vaccine recipients. Overall, about a third of the county's 375,000 seniors have received at least their first dose, according to the State Health Department. But only 3% of the county's vaccinations have been given to recipients who registered as Black, well below the 20% of the population they comprise. The actual percentage of Black recipients is likely somewhat higher as about 1 in 6 who received shots in the county did not list their race.
County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat supportive of the Republican governor's pandemic efforts, noted Palm Beach County has a higher percentage of its population vaccinated than either Miami-Dade or Broward counties. Since the outbreak began, the county has recorded 103,000 coronavirus cases and 2,125 deaths. The state has recorded 1.7 million cases and 25,600 deaths.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he would boost the supply of doses being sent to the states by about 16%. The state Health Department said it expects to get 307,000 first doses. In addition, the state expects 254,000 more booster shots to arrive to help complete the inoculation of the nearly 1.3 million Floridians who have already gotten the first of the two-shot vaccination regimen.
But vaccine access has been a concern among advocates for the poor and communities of color statewide. Some say the Belle Glade issue should cause state officials to re-examine whether all Florida residents 65 and older have easy access to the vaccine.
“We need to make sure there are additional efforts put in place to ensure there is equitable distribution in low-income communities and communities of color so we don’t see disparities continue,” said Miriam Harmatz, the executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project.
Calvan reported from Tallahassee, Florida.