TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — A Florida group of pastors, lawyers, physicians, educators, lawmakers, and legislators aims to ensure that people of color get vaccinated, and it’s involving churches — and maybe even the White House — to see that it happens.

What You Need To Know

  • Task force eyes 156 Florida sites including churches as vaccination centers

  • Task force goal: “to make sure that all people of color are vaccinated”

  • Data from Florida: Blacks are 2½ times less likely than whites to get vaccinated

The Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Taskforce says it has established a preliminary list of 156 churches and community centers that want to help administer COVID-19 vaccinations in underserved communities, said Rev. R.B. Holmes, the head of the task force and the pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee.

The proposed locations include multiple churches in Orange, Pinellas, Polk, and Hillsborough counties, including on St. Petersburg’s 31st Street South, near Tampa’s Ybor City, and near Orlando’s Griffin Park.

“To have the trusted venues where people feel comfortable going to, that’s a game changer,” Holmes said Wednesday during a Zoom task force meeting.

St. Petersburg’s Bethel A.M.E. Church counts itself among eager possible participants, Rev. Ken Irby told Spectrum News 13.

“It’s essential to bring this vaccine to the most needed neighborhoods and communities, and I think this initiative... has been a very inclusive and proactive step to build community and bring the vaccines to folks that desperately need it,” Irby said late Wednesday. “The faith community has always had a history, particularly for marginalized and disenfranchised folk, (and) has always been a forum and a venue that community members trust.”

The effort comes as data from Florida shows that Blacks are 2½ times less likely than whites to get vaccinated in the state.

It also comes as officials point to a disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on Blacks and other people of color. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says Blacks and Hispanics are 2.8 times more likely to die of COVID-19 than whites.

“Our ultimate goal is to make sure that all people of color are vaccinated and we don’t continue to lose people or suffer at a greater rate than the rest of the state or the rest of this nation when it comes to this virus,” said state Sen. Bobby Powell, a task force member from West Palm Beach.

Powell said 17% of vaccine-eligible Blacks in Palm Beach County had been vaccinated, compared with 43% of vaccine-eligible whites.

“So we’ve got our task cut out for us,” he said.

The task force also includes U.S. Rep. Val Demings of Orlando. She has “committed to working with the task force to increase awareness and encourage everyone to get vaccinated,” Demings spokesman Daniel Gleick told Spectrum News 13 in an email on Wednesday.

The task force discussed raising vaccination awareness through a campaign of trust amid concerns about vaccine hesitancy in the Black communities.

A December survey from KFF, an endowed nonprofit organization that focuses on national health issues, showed 35% of Black adults were hesitant to get vaccinated against COVID-19. That compared with 26% of both white adults and Hispanic adults.

Dr. Ivan Porter, director of community engagement at the Mayo Clinic in Florida, said during Wednesday’s meeting that his organization has been focusing on education and outreach, particularly in vaccine-hesitant communities.

Through so-called town hall events, he said, “we’ve had increases of up to 20% of people who were initially hesitant about the vaccine who just decided that they will now get it.”

The task force says it seeks a March 25 online town hall meeting and participation from Vice President Kamala Harris, White House health advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, and Surgeon General nominee Vivek Murthy, among others.

It also seeks a Zoom meeting with the White House to discuss its strategy and how to implement it, said Holmes, the head of the task force.

The task force says it aims within days to unveil a website that will provide trusted voices, trusted venues, and trusted information for people of color.

At its Wednesday meeting, members discussed grants and fundraising, plus corporate advertising support for Black-owned news organizations.

“Those are the kind of things that we’ve got to put out there front and center, to say, ‘Look we’re suffering disproportionately, and those advertising dollars ought to be used to get information out to people in distress in marginalized communities,’” Holmes said.

He said the task force aims to get 60% to 70% of Florida’s people of color vaccinated by the end of the year.

As for those churches as proposed vaccination sites, Holmes said the task force must make sure they’re located where they can do the most good and confirm that they meet state guidelines as vaccination centers.

“Everyone knows that the (vaccine) rollout has not been perfect, and that the numbers have not been real good,” Holmes told task force members. “But instead of crying about it, we’re going to be proactive and put the pressure where it ought to be to make sure we get those numbers up.”