In effort to vaccinate Black Miamians, religious leaders, community groups step up

C. Isaiah Smalls, Samantha J. Gross
·8 min read
Shirley Kemp of New Beginning Missionary Baptist Church receives her vaccination shot on Friday, January 22, 2021. Jackson Health System has partnered with nearly 55 churches, synagogues and mosques in Miami-Dade County with the goal of reaching people who are age 65 and older in underserved communities.

State Sen. Shevrin Jones knew churches would be a part of early COVID-19 vaccination efforts. In early January, he orchestrated one of the county’s first vaccination sites at a Pembroke Park church, where his father is the founder and senior pastor.

But as vaccine distribution continues to stumble in Florida — with Black communities especially lagging in getting the potentially life-saving shots — the West Park Democrat now says church partnerships with state and county governments are more crucial than ever for building trust and getting shots in arms.

“There’s a lot of things that I’ve disagreed with … but it’s a smart move,” said Jones, who represents parts of Broward and northern Miami-Dade County. “Rather than just the state trying to build a list of African Americans, why not go to individuals who have these established relationships, like the church.”

Jones and both of his parents had COVID-19 in July.

Statistics show that Black Americans disproportionately lag on vaccination rates, and Miami-Dade County is no exception. Seven of the 10 Miami-Dade ZIP codes with the lowest vaccination rates have majority African-American populations, according to the latest state data, released last Thursday. To connect with more Black Miamians — a group overrepresented in COVID deaths and hospitalizations and underrepresented in the vaccine rollout — some faith leaders have moved to the forefront of the effort.

“It only makes sense that we look to the very safe haven that has always stood the test of time for the African American community to take the lead to ensure equity is had, as it relates to its people,” said Miami-Dade Commissioner Kionne McGhee, a former Democratic state lawmaker.

Jackson Health System, Miami-Dade’s public hospital system, has taken the lead on partnering with the county to reach seniors who may live in underserved communities or lack the ability to compete for appointments through online portals at hospitals or Publix pharmacies.

Every week the hospital opens up a limited number of appointments for 50 partner churches, synagogues and mosques to register members of their own congregations, as well as family members, friends and members of neighboring houses of worship. For now, the slots are limited to those 65 and older.

Jackson CEO Carlos Migoya said Tuesday that the outreach is meant to “leverage their grassroots access to our neighborhoods.”

“We know that historically, Black churches are hubs of information and resources,” Migoya said. “Our goal is for people of color who are 65 and older to have equal access to our vaccine.”

Jackson is also trying out partnerships with community groups like the Little Havana Activity Center, Southwest Social Services, the Center for Haitian Studies and the Miami-Dade County Homeless Trust to reach shelter clients who are over 65.

“Making inroads in hard-to-reach groups is challenging but so important,” Migoya said.

Jones said COVID-19 has shed a light on disparities that already exist, but that partnerships like the one Jackson has led help build on already established relationships in churches, with an extra focus on Black seniors in Miami, many of whom have been overlooked in the pandemic.

“There’s an old saying that when the world catches the flu, the Black community catches pneumonia,” Jones said.

Not just a Miami problem

The disparities in Florida’s vaccine rollout are not limited to Miami-Dade, and Black community advocates in other parts of the state are taking similar approaches to try to educate underserved populations on the benefits of getting vaccinated.

A mid-November Pew Research poll — from before the vaccines were actually being administered — showed that just 42% of African Americans were planning to get vaccinated. That compared to 62% of whites, 63% of Hispanics and 83% of English-speaking Asians.

Dr. Leon Haley, CEO of UF Health Jacksonville, said statewide, the approach to outreach must be multifaceted and include leaders from faith-based organizations, but also community members and advocacy groups like the Urban League and the NAACP.

Not everyone belongs to a church, he said, and low vaccination rates among Black Floridians are not due solely to the limited supply. To increase vaccinations, there must be more education and trust building, as well as an understanding of historical context behind medical mistrust.

He gave the example of the Tuskegee experiment, which began in the 1930s when researchers studied the effects of untreated syphilis on hundreds of Black men without their consent.

“I think people want a singular answer,” he said. “But it’s not a singular issue.”

Infection rates in the Black community have been disproportionately high across the country. That’s due in part to Black overrepresentation in service work, which increases risk of exposure to COVID, plus a greater likelihood of living with underlying illnesses such as hypertension and diabetes than their white counterparts.

With vaccine appointments requiring patients to sign up online, many Black Floridians may be at a greater disadvantage because their occupations may not allow them to be on a laptop or phone for most of the day. For seniors who are less savvy or don’t have family to help them, the problem is heightened.

Jackson Health physician Dr. Inaki Bent saw this disparity play out firsthand while taking a family friend to get vaccinated on Monday. The friend, who had registered through New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church, didn’t quite mirror the other patients.

“I saw very few African Americans there, out of the maybe 50, 60 people either in line or sitting in the waiting area,” Bent said.

Reverend John White, of Immanuel Temple A.M.E. Church in Pembroke Pines, said he noticed a similar disparity last week during a visit to the North Dade Health Center to drop off lunch for healthcare workers administering the vaccines to people who registered through churches, synagogues and mosques.

White said Friday that in addition to outreach and education, he hopes that the state does more to bring a greater supply of vaccines into Black communities. He noted that the Publix pharmacy vaccine sites are a good start, but was disappointed that Gov. Ron DeSantis skipped over Broward and Miami-Dade Counties when rolling out the initial program. The first counties in South Florida to get the Publix vaccine sites were Palm Beach and Monroe counties, which have smaller Black populations.

“That’s just disheartening,” he said. “But we’re looking for other ways to partner with the state ... we are trying to get as many opportunities as we can to partner with whoever get the vaccine.”

Miami-Dade and Jackson administrators say they’re still working to reach underserved communities by reserving some appointment slots for people who aren’t as engaged with technology or as informed about the current vaccination system.

Jackson late last week allotted 1,300 appointment slots to Miami-Dade. Mayor Daniella Levine Cava’s administration has asked the county’s emergency operations center to fill the appointments through community groups. The agency has run the county’s emergency food distribution operations and pairs with non-profits to move vulnerable residents in advance of hurricanes. County administrators said those networks would be tapped to fill vaccination appointments, too.

“It’s something we’re trying to focus on aggressively, because of the equity issue,” said J.D. Patterson, the county’s chief public safety officer. “We’re reaching out to those community groups that have those ties.”

On Wednesday night, Miami-Dade’s emergency operations center sent the United Way a spreadsheet with 400 open appointments at Jackson vaccination centers. United Way tapped its network of social service agencies, neighborhood centers and other non-profits it funds or works with to offer the slots to their clients. All 400 slots were filled within two hours, said Cristina Blanco, United Way’s head of communications.

“The demand is high,” Blanco said.

Going through the process

Islamic Center of Greater Miami member Khalid Mirza received the first dose of the COVID vaccine in early January through his masjid’s partnership with Jackson Health. He said he was impressed by how well it was run, but he said he knew others would not have such an efficient experience. His 89-year-old father-in-law waited more than 3 1/2 hours to get vaccinated at Tropical Park, a site run by Miami-Dade County.

The elder population has “no patience to sit down and try to log in to make reservations,” Mirza, 77, said.

Mirza proposed offering vaccinations at free clinics, especially those in areas with majority Black populations.

“We’re working in communities that’re underserved,” said Mirza who sits on the board of UHI CommunityCare Clinic in Miami Gardens. “If we have the vaccine ourselves, we’ll do it 24 hours a day.”

Shirley Kemp, 71, said her decision to get vaccinated at the North Dade Health Center in Opa-locka last Friday took some thought.

Kemp, who lives in Opa-locka, was invited by her church, New Beginnings Missionary Baptist Church, which was one of the churches to partner with Jackson Health to schedule appointments for members and their families.

She said after she received her shot last week that like her Black neighbors and friends, she was scared at first “by talk,” and by concerns of how it could affect someone like her. She has various underlying medical conditions.

She said for those who may still be scared or unsure, they should “get up and come out here.”

“It’s for you,” she said. “It’s for us.”

Herald staff writer Douglas Hanks contributed to this report.

This article was updated to correct inaccurate information from the United Way on the number of vaccination slots the non-profit was given from Miami-Dade’s Emergency Management agency. There were 400 slots.