Does the Publix vaccine distribution plan leave Black communities behind?

Grocery store giant Publix has received thousands of COVID-19 vaccines from the Florida Department of Health to distribute to people in 20 counties across the state.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Grocery store giant Publix has received thousands of COVID-19 vaccines from the Florida Department of Health to distribute to people in 20 counties across the state.

But, a recent analysis by the Sun-Sentinel newspaper found the partnership has left a significant portion of the state’s vaccines outside of reach for people in low-income and Black neighborhoods.

On Monday, Gov. Ron Desantis said there are now 261 Publix stores administering COVID-19 vaccines from the state and added his administration has plans to expand the program soon.

“Some of these Publix stores have really filled the need getting into communities in a convenient way for folks to be able to go in and do that,” DeSantis said during a Monday press conference.

The plan has also come under fire after reports that Publix corporation donated $100,000 to a political action committee supporting DeSantis in December, though his office has denied the donation influenced his decision to partner with the store.

So far, in Northeast Florida Publix grocers are the only private businesses, other than hospitals, to receive vaccines from the state.

The vaccine is available at stores in St. Johns County, but not yet in Duval County.

“If you look at a map of where Publix is, in Duval County, you’ll see that we have a pretty, a very large number of Publix is in our region. The vast majority, if not all of them are south of the river,” said Dr. Sunil Joshi, President of the Duval County Medical Society Foundation. “So in those areas where we have socio-economic issues where people may not be doing as well, and those areas is where Publix is not located. Yes, and Duval County, we’re going to provide Publix with the vaccine, and this is going to help us vaccinate people, it’s not helping us vaccinate everybody in Jacksonville, it’s helping us vaccinate only a certain group of people that live in a certain part of Jacksonville and not the other areas.”

Marcella Nunez-Smith, who leads U.S. President Joe Biden’s Covid-19 Health Equity Task Force, stressed Monday the importance of making sure communities of color and low-income communities are not left out when it comes to receiving the vaccine.

Florida’s vaccination report shows less than 5% of those vaccinated in Florida are Black. But, Black people make up 17% of the state’s population.

DeSantis on Monday addressed the efforts to reach Black communities.

“At all of our other sites, the community sites, the Publix, the hospitals, just to be clear, there’s not any type of racial discrimination, they’re not accounting for race, it’s all based on age, regardless of any of that and so and that’s obviously the way it needs to be,” DeSantis said.

James Horace is in his 70s and has not yet received the vaccine. He says location does matter.

“I think if you want to get the vaccine out it would be better at churches. They are located in all neighborhoods. I just think it would be the best for vaccines,” Horace said.

The Florida Department of Health has held 25 vaccination events in 15 counties, including Duval, at places of worship. The churches were predominantly in Black neighborhoods, DeSantis said. That program will expand to 23 more churches this week statewide, he added.

It’s not just Black communities. Poor people in rural areas also face long drives to the nearest Publix pharmacy, the Sun-Sentinel found.

“It’s not just that, okay, you can drive anywhere to get to that grocer or that pharmacy to get the vaccine or to get your food, it’s these are the same areas where we have transportation issues as well,” Joshi said. “Folks may not have a car that’s going to allow them to drive for 10 miles to go to a Publix, you would have to be within walking distance, or at least a short bus ride away from, from the location in order to be vaccinated, that’s a major issue.”

DeSantis has said eventually the vaccine will be available in Winn-Dixie and Walmart stores when more doses are mass-produced.

“Southeastern Grocers is partnering with the Florida Department of Health, HHS and CDC to offer access and administration of the COVID-19 vaccine, as appropriate, when it becomes available,” a Southeastern Grocers spokesperson, the parent company for Winn-Dixie, told News4Jax. “We’ll be sure to share more as details are finalized. Until that time, our store teams are focusing their efforts on in-store safety protocols and serving our customers.”

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About the Authors:

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

Digital reporter who has lived in Jacksonville for more than 25 years and focuses on important local issues like education and the environment.