As vaccinations continue in nursing homes, leaders push for minorities to trust vaccine

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The leader of the Florida Assisted Living Association is questioning when assisted living facilities in the state will begin vaccination clinics.

The state’s plan has been working to vaccinate residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities first and then it plans to move to assisted-living facilities.

But in a letter seeking clarification from Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the CEO of the Florida Assisted Living Association said she was told Walgreens and CVS had not received approval to begin scheduling in assisted living facilities and adult family care homes.

“Our members are on the front lines of this global pandemic, providing a safe and secure environment for their assisted-living community residents,” CEO Veronica Catoe wrote to Gov. DeSantis.

Wednesday, at least three facilities in Northeast Florida began vaccination clinics at their facilities, including Heartland Healthcare Orange Park, their sister facility in South Jacksonville and Cross Care Center in Jacksonville.

Mildred Johnson, 98, was among the Florida nursing home residents vaccinated Wednesday for COVID-19. In her nursing home, Heartland Healthcare Orange Park, 10 residents have died from COVID-19 complications this year, state health records show.

In neighboring Duval County, nursing home Cross Care Center vaccinated close to 60 residents on Wednesday. Occupational Therapist David Berlin said he was relieved after a year of uncertainty.

“As a younger guy, I feel pretty safe in the world. For my patients and everyone else, that’s who we’re doing it for,” said Berlin.

While pharmacies continue their mission to vaccinate seniors and healthcare workers in long term care facilities, leaders across the state have begun efforts to raise trust within communities of color about the vaccine.

Wednesday, former Jacksonville Mayor Alvin Brown and U.S. Congressman Al Lawson joined an effort to encourage people of color to get vaccinated for COVID-19.

The task force, which met in the historic Springfield neighborhood, included officials from UF health Jacksonville and pastors from churches across Florida.

The announcement of the task force comes as data from the Florida Department of Health shows Black people in Florida are disproportionately impacted by the health outcomes of the coronavirus.

Across Florida, roughly 17% of Floridians are Black. Black people in the state makeup at least 13% of COVID-19 infections but represent 22% of hospitalizations and 18% of deaths from COVID-19 complications, records show. The vaccine is not yet available to the public.

According to state reports, of the nearly 68,000 healthcare workers and nursing home residents and staff vaccinated before Christmas Eve – 7.6% are Black.

The Florida Department of Health lumps together at least four races in the category labeled “other” on the state vaccination report, the category includes people who are Asian, Native American, Alaskan Natives and Pacific Islander. The group represents 14% of COVID-19 cases, 12% of hospitalizations and 8% of deaths, state health records show.

“We understand the mistrust, the apprehension, the suspiciousness, because of the Tuskegee experiment, and when black and colored folks have been used medically. But it’s a new day,” said the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee, Rev. Dr. R.B. Holmes, Jr. “We know our people are dying disproportionately and if we don’t step up to help our people who will?”

The Tuskegee Experiment was a controversial 1932 study by the Public Health Service where hundreds of Black men did not receive the proper treatment needed to cure their illness.

Stephanie Neloms has lived in Jacksonville since she was a child. Neloms says she will get the vaccine when it becomes available.

“You just want to be safe and be careful with this COVID-19 because we don’t know how long this thing is going to last,” said Neloms.

Neloms neighbor, Pranda Odum, says she too plans to get vaccinated, along with her school-aged son.

“I feel good about it. If we can get it, and avoid getting this virus away from here, I am willing to take it. I will give it to my family,” said Odum.

Leaders on the statewide task force say they have yet to reach out to Gov. DeSantis but plan to in order to have vaccination clinics brought to economically disadvantaged communities. In comparison, COVID-19 testing clinics were brought to underserved Jacksonville communities in April.

“We know grandma is not going to go to certain hospitals, but grandma will go to her church if there is an outreach center,” said Rev. Holmes.

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