By J.A. Jones
According to the most recent Florida statistics, COVID-19 is skyrocketing in Pinellas County and is being largely felt in communities of Black people. Numbers indicate that Black people are contracting COVID-19 at rates four times higher than whites.
Reasons for these numbers could include the fact that Blacks are more likely to be first responders and service personnel, therefore at greater risk for public exposure. Many health experts and organizations have pointed out systemic racism as an underlying factor for the high rate of the disease in Black communities.
Whatever the reasons are, it should not be a surprise that South St. Petersburg, which is home to the largest population of Black residents in the county, holds the highest amount of COVID-19 cases in the county. Currently, according to Florida’s COVID-19 Data and Surveillance Dashboard, South St. Pete has over 1000 recorded cases of COVID-19.
Recent data also shows a rapid increase in the rate of infection in young adults. The median age in Pinellas is actually even lower than the state’s median; the median age for cases in Pinellas is 39, while the current median age throughout Florida is 40.
To combat this rising tide of infection, a coalition of community partners has initiated the MASK UP! ST. PETE campaign to bring awareness to the need to wear mask to lessen the spread of the virus. Recently, the U.S. Surgeon General recommended wearing face masks as the country moves into the next phases of reopening.
But as St. Pete’s COVID numbers continue to rise along with numbers across the state, the MASK UP! ST. PETE campaign organizers have raised the question of whether current messaging about wearing masks in public has had enough reach in St. Pete’s Black community.
In a letter to community partners, campaign co-organizers Imam Askia Muhammad Aquil and Rev. Dr. Katurah Jenkins-Hall wrote, “Our best strategy involves encouraging people to wear masks. While this practice has penetrated about 10% of our population, it is not being received or implemented well, especially by our younger adults.”
Several community partners have joined together to create what they are calling a “laser-focused” initiative, with the MASK UP! ST. PETE campaign. The project is designed simply to spread the word that “wearing masks can save lives.” The campaign has been used effectively in other cities around the country, and in South St. Pete will involve street-level campaigning in the most affected zip codes.
MASK UP! ST. PETE will start in the 33705 zip code, which currently has 431 recorded cases of COVID-19 – the highest number of cases in the county. The next highest rate is also in South St. Pete, in zip code 33712, which has 400 cases.
The campaign will include giving free Mask Up! T-shirts to those who agree to wear masks in public and organizers plan to cover a new community weekly, “until our communities are saturated.”
So far, community partners including the City of St. Petersburg, One Community, the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg, Premier Eye Care, Collective Empowerment Group of the Tampa Bay Area, Inc. Legacy-56, Inc, The Weekly Challenger, Pinellas County, and several faith-based organizations have signed on to help with messaging and raising awareness around the campaign.
If you are interested in volunteering or taking part in the MASK UP! ST. PETE campaign, including assisting with the distribution of masks and t-shirts, make plans to attend a volunteer planning Zoom call on Thursday at 7 pm, by registering at http://maskupvolunteers.eventbrite.com. Once you have registered on Eventbrite you will receive more information on the Volunteer Zoom call.
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