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In Fall 2020, WUSF began reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida's health care system. Our stories focus on the voices of residents in communities of color and how Florida's handling of the coronavirus pandemic and vaccine distribution affects them.WUSF’s reporting on disparities in health care access is funded in part by the COVID-19 Response Initiative of Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation and Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

Hillsborough Brings COVID-19 Vaccine Directly To Seniors In Affordable Housing

A Black woman sits beside her walker in a folding chair as a young white nursing student prepares a COVID-19 vaccine for her.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Naomi Pennington, 79, got the COVID-19 vaccine at River Pines Senior Apartments in Tampa to protect herself after watching family members get sick with the disease. The pop-up was part of targeted program run by Hillsborough County and the health department.

The goal is to reach seniors who struggle to access public sites or are apprehensive about going to them. It's helping underserved communities get vaccinated.

Racial disparities in COVID-19 vaccine distribution continue despite increasingly available supplies, and some communities in Florida are looking for solutions to close the gaps.

A program in Hillsborough County is delivering vaccines directly to underserved residents in places like affordable housing complexes.

The county hosted a pop-up clinic recently at River Pines Senior Apartments in Tampa, where more than 100 seniors got their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

The positive energy in the site was palpable, as neighbors exchanged hellos from their respective folding chairs and chatted in spaced-out seats while they waited to be cleared to leave.

Sitting in the monitoring area was Naomi Pennington, 79. She said she learned about this site right around the time a lot of her family members got sick with the disease. Pennington tested negative, but knew it was time to get the vaccine.

“I just hate to hear of all the deaths that are occurring as a result of ‘C-19’ -- that’s what I call it, ‘C-19,’” she said. “And of course when family members and friends get it, it makes you wonder; it makes you more conscious of the things you need to do to keep yourself safe.”

This was in early February, when large government-run sites and Publix pharmacies were some of the only options for getting a vaccine. Pennington hadn't entered the frenzy of trying to secure one of those coveted appointments because it seemed overwhelming.

Black man sits in a folding chair inside a pop-up COVID-19 vaccination clinic.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Horace Bludsaw lives at River Pines Senior Apartments in Tampa and was surprised to get a chance to receive the COVID-19 vaccine so close to home. He felt like government was ignoring Black residents in vaccine rollout.

Protecting all residents

Horace Bludsaw, 72, didn't either. He said early reports of unfairness in the distribution and a lifetime of experiencing systemic racism made him think those sites weren't really available to him.

“It seems like they put the Black people last, you know everybody else is getting it [the vaccine] but Blacks, so I just stayed home and waited,” Bludsaw said.

He said he was surprised at how little he had to wait -- and travel -- with the opportunity to get the vaccine so close to home.

“It was good,” he said with a smile, adding that he still planned to exercise caution because he knew immunity is not immediate.

The site at River Pines was part of the ongoing Targeted Vaccine Area initiative, a program run by Hillsborough County Aging Services, Office of Emergency Management and the state health department.

The goal is to reach seniors who struggle to access public sites or are apprehensive about going to them.

Carlos Mercado, director of disease control with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County, said the program also aims to close some of the racial gaps in distribution.

So far in Florida, fewer than six percent of vaccinated people are Black and about 11 percent identify as Hispanic.

Hillsborough County’s numbers are roughly the same for Hispanics and slightly higher for Blacks at just over seven percent.

“We want to make sure that they're protected just as well as anybody else,” Mercado said.

People standing outside an apartment building. Staff checking in seniors for a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Seniors check in with staff at the pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic at River Pines Senior Apartments in February. The site was one of seven held at Tampa Housing Authority properties recently.

Going door to door with vaccine outreach

So far about 17,000 people in the county have received first shots through the program and more than 12,000 have received second doses.

The county has visited 42 locations including senior homes, churches and affordable housing complexes. Seven of those are run by the Tampa Housing Authority.

Director of Asset Management Lorenzo Bryant said staff are working closely with residents to encourage participation.

“We won’t just rely on flyering, we go out and have those conversations, and say, ‘Hey this is the date, this is the time, this is your second course,’” he explained. “Very important to be fully protected.”

Staff did just that one afternoon in late February at the Reed at Encore, another senior living complex downtown.

Property manager Joan Mey and her colleague Lisa Ortiz went door to door reminding residents about an upcoming clinic for second doses. Ortiz speaks Spanish with some residents.

Three women stand in apartment doorway. One is elderly and holding paperwork while the two younger women point out information on the forms.
Stephanie Colombini
WUSF Public Media
Staff at the Reed at Encore, a Tampa Housing Authority facility, walk resident Linda Barcia Prado through forms she needed to bring with her for her second dose appointment.

They knocked on Andrew Haywood’s door and walked him through the questionnaire he needed to bring for his shot.

Haywood asked them if he would receive some sort of proof that he was fully vaccinated after receiving the second dose. They assured him he would receive a card at the site.

"If I have any more questions, you know I'll call you," Haywood said with a grin. He said staff and residents are "like family" at this facility.

Haywood, 65, said he feels safer living in an apartment building now knowing he and many of his neighbors have gotten the vaccine.

One floor down, Linda Barcia Prado greeted Mey and Ortiz cheerfully with her mask on while her two dogs barked inside the apartment. The women laughed about riling up the pets before Mey walked Barcia Prado through the forms she needed to bring for her shot.

Barcia Prado, 76, said she was grateful not to have to wait hours in her car at a drive-thru vaccination site, and she said it has been really helpful to get information about the vaccine from people she trusts.

“I feel relaxed knowing I’m more protected in these coming months, you know," she said. "I just appreciate it with all my heart.”

The county still has hundreds more sites to get to in its targeted program for seniors. It’s a slow process that involves a lot of time and resources.

But health officials say it’s necessary to protect the entire community.

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.