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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.

Community Groups Team Up To Vaccinate Homebound Residents In St. Petersburg

Nurse hands man sitting in armchair a COVID-19 vaccination card.
Stephanie Colombini
Nurse practitioner Daphne Gardner teamed up with community groups and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County to vaccinate homebound residents against COVID-19.

The partnership helps residents struggling to access COVID-19 vaccines in the community. This kind of local effort could be key as demand for shots slows.

Health workers and nonprofits in St. Petersburg have teamed up on a grassroots effort to vaccinate homebound residents against COVID-19.

Spearheading the program is family nurse practitioner Daphne Gardner. On a recent evening, she visited St. Pete resident Charles Thompson's house wearing a blue lab coat and carrying a small black duffle bag of medical supplies.

Thompson is about 7 feet tall and sat in a large armchair with a brace on his leg. A phone and medications scattered the table next to him and a walker stood on the other side.

Since the pandemic hit, Thompson said he has pretty much been stuck there.

"Well, it's very depressing and lonely, although I do have family who do come by, you know, but just sitting here most of the day doing nothing with my health — because I have two very bad knees and a bad back — it's been hard," he explained.

Thompson, 67, said he was eager to get the vaccine so he would feel safe to start going back to the pool where he does physical therapy. But he was wary to ask a family member to take him for a shot because he didn't think he could physically handle waiting in a line.

Thompson said he learned about this program from a friend and was grateful for the opportunity.

“I hope this really can help me and it’s what I need,” he said of the vaccine.

"Don't talk about it, be about it."

Gardner said she wanted to make it easier for underserved residents disproportionately affected by the pandemic to get protection from the virus, and was used to working with home-based patients as part of her mobile health care business, Infinity Health Consultants.

So she teamed up with community groups and the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas County to launch a program in late March to vaccinate homebound adults and their caregivers.

At the start of this week, they had administered 134 doses, with more than half going to Black residents, who are being vaccinated at lower rates than whites in the county.

“It really has made a difference for those that can't come out,” said Gardner. “We've even had some bedbound patients and they were in tears when we first got there because they never thought they'd be able to receive that vaccine.”

Two health department nurses assist Gardner with the vaccinations each week.

Handling the scheduling is Lynn Johnson, founder of Community Tech House. She created the nonprofit, which helps people with digital tasks like vaccine registration and filing for unemployment, after the pandemic put her hair styling career on hold.

Johnson said at least in the beginning, the system for getting shots in Florida wasn't working for a lot of people with technology and mobility issues. When a client told her Gardner was vaccinating homebound people, Johnson knew she wanted to help.

"So, just jump in and get it done, don't talk about just be about it, you know what I mean?” she said. “Go ahead and be one of the team players to get it done.”

Also on the team is the Pinellas County Urban League, which secured $50,000 from the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg to fund the three-month initiative. Neighborly, a local Meals on Wheels group, tapped clients to be patients.

Connecting with residents

Johnson said there are some logistical challenges to having this many moving parts, especially since vaccine rollout has been so fluid.

For example, the team was relying on the single dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine until the federal government paused its use last week. They had to switch to two-dose Moderna on the fly and educate patients about the change.

“We can’t miss a beat because we don't want people to wait or second-guess themselves if should they get the vaccine or not, because we all need to be healthy and we all need to get our shots so we can come out,” Lynn Johnson said.

The state also runs its own program that has vaccinated thousands of homebound residents around Florida.

But the Urban League's Rebecca Watson said having groups that know the community helps build trust.

“People appreciate the personal touch, so being able to connect with people one-on-one to really talk to them, walking them through the process and making sure that we have accurate information, and that we keep our promises,” she said.

Working with community partners during the pandemic has been vital to improving equity in the county, according to Maggie Hall, spokesperson for the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas.

“They are closer to the communities they represent than we are day-to-day, but by forging relationships with them it takes us into those communities, and it helps to make our public health mission stronger, so their value has been just tremendous, we really couldn’t do it without them,” she said.

With demand slowing at mass vaccination sites around the state, Watson said it will take more homegrown efforts like these to protect everyone. She said the Urban League is working to boost vaccine education and engagement to help more Pinellas residents get their shots.

WUSF is reporting on how distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine exposes inequities in Florida’s health care system. Read more by visiting the Unequal Shots page.

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.