Black pastors ask DeSantis for more vaccine sites, citing low rates in community
ORLANDO SENTINEL | Bishop Derrick L. McRae has seen for himself that Central Florida’s Black residents will get vaccinated if given the right resources, but access is often lacking.
McRae, president of Orlando’s African American Council of Christian Clergy and the senior pastor of the Experience Christian Center in Orlando, estimates 94% of his congregation is vaccinated and 68% are boosted. In contrast, 41% of Black Floridians are vaccinated statewide, and 72% of the state is vaccinated overall. He attributes his congregation’s high vaccination rates to his efforts to set up vaccination sites at the church and spread information about the vaccine to his membership.
“I personally paid money to get additional information out to my membership ... nothing was state-led,” he said. “We should not have to take on the funding efforts, or even the marketing efforts. Those two are lacking very strongly in the African American community, as well as the availability of testing sites.”
McRae is also a member of the Equal Ground Action Fund, an arm of the Florida State Network of African American Clergy Alliances, which represents 15 counties, 1,200 churches, and 60,000 Floridians. On Tuesday, weeks after Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings was denied a request for more testing sites, the Equal Ground Action Fund sent a letter to Gov. Ron DeSantis asking the state to work with them to provide more resources for communities of color.
“We have witnessed and experienced firsthand the rollouts for vaccinations and testing failed to reach Florida’s communities of color and its most vulnerable. We have listened to congregants come to us in confusion, distrust, and need,” the letter read. “We have felt neglected by the state government to deliver their abundance of resources to our underserved areas, and rather give preferential treatment to others.”
The state has made efforts to reach people of color before. The state’s Department of Emergency Management had a door-knocking campaign in low-income and minority neighborhoods in the months after the vaccines became available to provide information and talk to residents about a lack of transportation, media reported.
Yet at the beginning of vaccine rollout, Florida’s vaccination sites were more likely to be located in white and wealthy communities than in poor communities with a larger percentage of people of color.
Though the state initially partnered with Black churches, pastors say the state has previously ignored requests to meet and still not put enough vaccination or testing sites in these communities. They also think the state can do more to listen to take advice from Black leaders and combat misinformation, which further complicates efforts to reach out to Black and Hispanic communities. The office responded to their request to meet this week, but the meeting has not been scheduled.
More whites than Blacks are inoculated in every county in Central and South Florida, according to a Palm Beach Post analysis of the state’s race and ethnicity vaccination data as of Nov. 5. The analysis found that in Orange County, 45% of whites are vaccinated compared to 28% of Blacks; in Osceola, 42% of whites and 28% of Blacks; in Polk, 37% of whites and 26% of Blacks; in Lake, 41% of whites and 32% of Blacks; and in Seminole, 47% of whites and 37% of Blacks are vaccinated.
Meanwhile, Black people die from COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates in Florida’s metropolitan cities, including Orlando.
DeSantis spokesperson Christina Pushaw responded to a request for comment by saying that vaccines are widely available across the state.
“In reporting on vaccination rates, there is often an assumption – present in this letter – that people who aren’t vaccinated would get vaccinated if they were able to access vaccines,” she said. “But I would also point out that 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.”
McRae says his experience with his congregation and his discussions with his community provide evidence that there are more Black people willing to get vaccinated in Florida than the 41% who already have.
He hopes to work with DeSantis to find solutions, along with other members of the Equal Ground Action Fund such as Rev. McCoy, the group’s Florida Faith Outreach director.
“This is not an attack,” McCoy said. “We’re not coming after the governor. We’re just asking for, one, for him to represent all of us, have a conversation, and to find ways with us on how we can best get our resources to those most affected.”
A previous version of this article identified Rev. McRae as the Florida Faith Outreach director. Rev. McCoy is the state’s faith outreach director.