Local coalition of pastors address vaccine disparity

A group of local pastors, led by Rev. Dr. Wayne G. Thompson, held a press conference on Feb. 3 calling for more vaccine doses in Black and Brown communities.

BY FRANK DROUZAS, Staff Writer

ST. PETERSBURG — With COVID-19 vaccinations now underway nationwide, African Americans in many parts of the country have received far fewer shots than white people, exposing a racial gap in the vaccine distribution. Rev. Dr. Wayne G. Thompson and other Tampa Bay pastors addressed this disparity on Wednesday.

“We believe that it’s necessary for us to hold conversations about this because it seems that the rollout and distribution processes are not reaching our core units and neighborhoods that need to be reached,” said Thompson, senior pastor of First Baptist Institutional Church, where a press conference was held Feb. 3.

The pastor, who is a member of the Statewide Coronavirus Vaccination Community Education and Engagement Task Force, noted that other Task Force committees — comprised of African-American religious leaders — were holding similar press conferences simultaneously across the state to address these concerns. Other pastors at this West-Central Florida conference included Anthony White of Bible-Based Fellowship Church in Tampa, Thomas Scott of 34th Street Church of God in Tampa, Manuel Sykes of Bethel Community Baptist Church, among others.

Thompson pointed out that “we must go where the virus is hitting hard and most often.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are dying from COVID-19 at nearly three times the rate of white people. In Florida, 5.5 percent of white residents have received at least one vaccine dose by Jan. 26, compared with two percent of Black residents.

“Our communities have for a long time been underserved,” Thompson said. “Unserved not just at this vaccine level, but has a history of being underserved in the community on an economic level, educational and all around.”

Thompson and other Task Force members, meeting since December, have identified about 80 churches statewide to be a part of the vaccination rollout. Locally, they have contacted pastors of churches in Pasco, Pinellas, Hillsborough, Manatee and Sarasota counties who stand “ready and able, across denominations” to assist. Also, many people within the church community and congregations have medical backgrounds and are available to help with the vaccination process.

“We want to be a partner with the government as we reach out to our communities to make certain that everybody gets a fair share,” he pointed out, adding that people trust venues like churches.

Black representation at the government level is “a good thing,” Thompson said, when it comes to churches working with local government in making this happen, as many vaccination sites are currently too far from Black neighborhoods and communities. He also underscored that it is not a given everyone in these neighborhoods has easy access to the internet to obtain information on vaccinations.

“We’re talking about availability and accessibility,” Thompson said. “If it’s available, make it accessible. If you make it accessible, we’ll come to it. We’ll get the job done.”

To assist in the rollout, Gov. Ron DeSantis has authorized the Publix grocery store chain to be a site of vaccinations, but such stores are hard to find in certain communities.

“In the Black and Brown communities, there are no Publix,” Scott said. “So if you are going to go to a Publix, you have to go outside the community to have access to it. That is a huge issue and a huge problem.”

It is a well-known fact that many parts of south St. Pete are considered food deserts. By sending vaccines to grocery stores, the food desert has also created a vaccine desert.

“And the economic desert and the service desert,” said Thompson. “Whatever kind of desert you have, we’re in the desert.”

Regarding some African Americans who either don’t want to take the vaccine or simply don’t trust it, Thompson — who already took the first shoot — said that he hoped religious leaders would help lead by example.

“When you look at this whole situation, that our people trust our voices, if we can do it and tell them that it’s great, it’s good, they believe it can be done,” he said. “We trust God, and we believe in science; we believe in science, and we trust God.”

He also dismissed disinformation videos aimed at Black and Brown people that are circulating, some of them claiming that the vaccine will alter DNA and turn people into robots, or worse, kill them.

“They can put all the misinformation out they want to,” Thompson asserted, “but when they see the people getting the vaccination, that’s going to turn it all around.”

To reach Frank Drouzas, email fdrouzas@theweeklychallenger.com

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