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Pastors urge DeSantis to work with them and help Black Floridians

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Florida has “neglected” black communities during the COVID-19 pandemic while giving “preferential treatment to others,” a group of pastors wrote Tuesday in a letter to Governor Ron DeSantis asking to talk to him about how to better help black people.

“We have witnessed and experienced first hand the deployments of vaccinations and testing not reaching Florida’s communities of color and its most vulnerable,” said the letter written by the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances.

Only 42% of black residents have received at least one dose of the vaccine, the state health department reported Friday. It’s well below the rate of whites, including white Hispanics, which is at least 58%.

Following: New COVID-19 data for Florida: Vaccine rates lag in black, Republican, younger, low-voting communities

Following: Palm Beach County COVID-19 Vaccine Tracker: 63% Fully Vaccinated

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The fatal respiratory disease has killed 285 out of every 100,000 black Floridians. The death rate for whites is 273 per 100,000.

“We have worked with local governments and community organizations to create better access to … resources,” the letter further stated. “Yet in all of this, we felt neglected by the state government for providing its abundance of resources to our underserved areas, and instead giving preferential treatment to others.”

Pastors’ letter echoes previous frustration expressed by black leaders in Florida

Pastorsthe letter echoed the frustration previously voiced by some black leaders across Florida on what they call a lack of cooperation from state officials to work with them, their churches and other organizations within their communities.

“I was very disappointed because there seems to be no…real process of talking to leaders, valuing the voice of religious leaders,” said co-signer Rev. JR Thicklin, president of the Palm. Beach County Clergy Alliance. And while DeSantis listens to religious leaders, he said, “he has his own group that he leans towards.”

Florida can get many more black people vaccinated and tested if officials work directly with black church leaders, pastors say. Neither DeSantis nor state health officials have met with members of their group, they say.

“The letter is in part to ask him to begin developing (state-run) testing sites,” said Pastor Marcus R. McCoy, Jr. of the Greater Refuge Memorial Church in Orlando, “and the invite us to meet to discuss solutions, not only to remedy the current problems, but also to the problems to come.

The governor’s aides are planning a meeting with pastors, McCoy said.

“We’re not trying to tell the governor what to do,” McCoy added. “We just want to have a conversation…to see if they actually have the tactics to be successful. You can’t use the same tactics everywhere. What works in Pinellas (county) may not work in Orange (county).

The letter was co-signed by 12 faith leaders who said they represent 1,200 churches and about 60,000 people statewide.

DeSantis office rejects notion that black communities have been ignored

DeSantis’ office said the state worked with black organizations to provide vaccines to their communities. They point to efforts the state undertook in January 2021, for example, when it sent vaccines to seven predominantly black churches.

“During the early phases of the vaccine rollout, (Department of Emergency Management) personnel went to many of these communities,” said DeSantis aide Christina Pushaw, “and knocked on the gates to offer direct assistance to people who wanted to protect themselves but had questions about vaccines or encountered barriers to getting vaccinated, such as a lack of reliable transportation.

Last February, DeSantis and former NFL wide receiver Anquan Boldin announced in the former football player’s hometown of Pahokee that the state would open a vaccination site in the rural majority-black town of about 5 500 inhabitants.

But it came after mayors of the majority of towns in Palm Beach County’s Black Glades area, including Pahokee, criticized DeSantis for making Publix supermarkets the main source of vaccines statewide. The Grocery Chain does not have a location in Glades.

In March, DeSantis’ office announced a list of nine churches in “underserved communities,” the state would work with to administer approximately 60,000 doses of the vaccine.

Most Publix locations; Walmart stores; CVS and Walgreen stores; and pharmacies offer the vaccine free of charge.

Florida lists inoculation gap between racial groups

Yet Florida has the second largest inoculation gap between blacks and whites in 42 states analyzed by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonprofit focused on health issues.

Although racial information was not available for 17% of vaccinees statewide, a Palm Beach Post analysis of state ZIP code-level data showed that fewer people in majority-black communities received their vaccines.

Only 52% of residents in majority black ZIP codes had been vaccinated as of Nov. 4, compared to 64% in white ZIP codes.

In Palm Beach County, the least vaccinated places are in the Glades, where the rate ranges from 43% in South Bay to 60% in Belle Glade as of Dec. 31, according to data from the Florida Department of Health.

On the urbanized east side of the county, inoculation rates in ZIP codes with the highest concentration of black residents in the region are around 60%.

About 77% of eligible county residents had received at least one vaccine, the data showed.

Dr. Kitonga Kiminyo, an infectious disease specialist at Boynton Beach, believes that DeSantis’ early efforts to vaccinate the elderly initially helped exacerbate the vaccination gap between blacks and whites across the state.

An estimated 73% of Florida residents age 65 and older are white, according to US Census Bureau statistics, compared to 53% of the total population.

“The push from the very beginning didn’t include African Americans,” Kiminyo said. “It wasn’t targeted for people from the Glades or people from Riviera Beach,” the predominantly black town north of West Palm Beach.

Kiminyo said his group, the T. Leroy Jefferson Medical Society, reached out to the DeSantis administration early in the pandemic to offer help serving black communities in Palm Beach County, but they never received it. Answer.

Pushaw, DeSantis’ assistant, attributed low vaccination rates among blacks in part to their personal choice not to get vaccinated.

“It is often assumed that people who are unvaccinated would get vaccinated if they had access to vaccines,” she said. “But … 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.

None of the approved vaccines have been shown to be harmful, contrary to concerns expressed by some racial minorities in early 2021 at the start of the vaccination campaign in Florida and elsewhere.

Health experts say vaccine promotion among black communities is lagging

Kiminyo and others don’t believe that black Floridians want the vaccine any less than white people.

“There will always be people who … are always reluctant to get vaccinated,” he said. “But more often when as a black doctor I talk to a black or brown patient who has questions, you are able to answer these questions with sincerity.”

And it gives a hesitant person more confidence to get vaccinated, he said.

Pastor McCoy of the group who sent the letter to DeSantis said getting vaccinated is less convenient for black people. “Some of these places close early, at 5 a.m.,” he said. “And some people work and don’t have the convenience of being able to wait in long lines for vaccinations and testing.”

And Florida lacks high-level black officials to relay the facts, Kiminyo said, calling on Florida surgeon general Dr. Joseph Ladapo.

“Here’s someone who doesn’t wear a mask,” Kiminyo said. “Someone who doesn’t take the pandemic as seriously as most of us.”

These kinds of mixed messages from government officials sow doubt in people, said Thicklin, the Palm Beach County pastor.

“If you start saying, ‘Hey, you don’t have to wear masks,’ black people say, ‘See, I told you this was a hoax all along,'” he said. he declares.

After initially pushing vaccinations, DeSantis downplayed the importance of the vaccine to the point of passing for an anti-vaccine. He has signed bills that prevent cities from instituting public mask mandates; allowed the state to fine companies accused of requiring proof of vaccination; and sued the federal government to block President Joe Biden’s vaccination mandate from big business and hospitals.

Yet COVID-19 vaccination rates among blacks in some southern states are far higher than those in Florida, in part because state officials worked with local community groups.

In Mississippi, about 57% of black residents and 52% of white residents have received at least one vaccine as of Jan. 10, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported.

The U.S. state with the largest proportion of black residents, Mississippi, where 38% of Mississippians identify as black, achieved racial parity in inoculation in the first months of 2021. Organization leaders in black communities said that when they met with state health officials, their concerns and ideas were taken seriously, Mississippi Today reported in April.

Black leaders “stepped up and they got vaccinated,” state health officer Dr. Thomas Dobbs told Mississippi Today. “They did it publicly and they talked about it. And they let us know what we need to do to make vaccines available in their communities. »

No such meeting took place between Florida health officials and members of the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances, according to the letter from their pastors, and DeSantis ignored an earlier request from them to to meet.

Chris Persaud is a data reporter for The Palm Beach Post.