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Florida Black Lawmakers Work To Dispel Coronavirus Vaccine Myths

Getting her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine meant a lot to Lelia Clark, 77. She is one of the 55,916 Black people who have been vaccinated in Florida as of Wednesday, compared to 710, 885 white people.
Getting her first dose of the coronavirus vaccine meant a lot to Lelia Clark, 77. She is one of the 55,916 Black people who have been vaccinated in Florida as of Wednesday, Jan. 20, compared to 710, 885 white people.

Black lawmakers in Florida are trying to dispel disinformation about COVID-19 vaccines. A December survey by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 35% of Black adults say they will probably or definitely not get the COVID-19 vaccine. The latest Florida Department of Health numbers shows the percent of Black Floridians vaccinated so far is in the single digits.

The Kaiser Family Foundation is a non-profit healthcare policy group. About half of Black adults it surveyed who say they will probably or definitely not get a vaccine say they are worried they'll get COVID-19 from the vaccine. They're also concerned about side effects and don't trust the government's assurances that the vaccine is safe. Leon Haley is CEO of UF Health in Jacksonville, a two-hospital system.

"I have had my first dose, I've had my second dose, and aside from a sore arm, I've really have had no complications whatsoever from the vaccine," Haley says.

He was part of a virtual town hall put together by the Florida Legislative Black Caucus. Haley says he took the vaccine to make people less hesitant.

"I will tell you even today, we still have even some reluctance from some of our employees, although I will tell you we've had many more that have signed up and have agreed to take the vaccine, having seen me and many of our other senior leaders take that," Haley says.

In his hospitals, Haley says he's seen up close how the pandemic adversely affects African Americans.

"The population of Jacksonville, Duval County is about 30% African American, but yet 60% of our admissions have been African American. So almost a reversal of what you see in the county," Haley says.

Haley says the coronavirus isn't just a respiratory disease like people initially thought.

"It really essentially affects everything. Rather it's your kidneys, your brain, your heart," Haley says.

Another panelist, Melissa Bishop-Murphy, works for Pfizer, one of the companies responsible for making a COVID-19 vaccine. She says their clinical trial tried to include African Americans. 10% of their more than 43,000 participants were Black.

"The African American population is 13% of the U.S. population, so we tried to get as close to 13% of the population as we could to be reflective of the population in the U.S., and we feel very proud because typically in the clinical trial we don't have that type of diversity," Bishop-Murphy says.

But even if the panelists and black lawmakers can convince people to take the vaccine, getting one will be challenging. Only about 5% of Floridians vaccinated are Black. Most county health departments require seniors to go online to sign up for an appointment. Sen. Audrey Gibson (D-Jacksonville) says not everyone 65 and up is tech-savvy.

"We have no idea what seniors live alone, what seniors have family that can help them make appointments, which ones don't, so there [are] more things that we can do to create better access for our African American seniors 65 and older," Gibson says.

In Leon County, health department officials have partnered up with a church in a majority Black neighborhood as part of minority outreach efforts. Gibson says the effort to involve churches in vaccinating seniors is a good idea. But more avenues need to open up that don't include a computer. She's hoping there will be a more coordinated effort nationally to get vaccines out to vulnerable populations.

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