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Decreasing Vaccinations And Increasing Infections: South Florida's Week With COVID-19

Gov. Ron DeSantis announced efforts to increase vaccinations of people ages 65 and older during a press conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on Jan. 4, 2020.
Verónica Zaragovia
Gov. Ron DeSantis announced efforts to increase vaccinations of people ages 65 and older during a press conference at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami on Jan. 4, 2020.

Fewer people were vaccinated for the COVID-19 virus in South Florida over the past week than the week before. Meantime, infections continue growing and the death toll keeps climbing. This has been a week of falling vaccinations and rising infections.

Houses of worship in South Florida have been working to test people and get distribute of COVID-19 vaccine doses even as the virus continues spreading, and shows the disparities of health care.

WLRN's South Florida Roundup spoke with three faith leaders about how their organizations are meeting the challenge of vaccinations.

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We also heard the latest on the virus itself, and why there remains a racial gap with vaccinations against the disease and efforts to slow its spread.

Faith-Based Vaccination Efforts

Houses of worship have been working to test people for the virus and deliver doses to their members and community.

Koinonia Worship Center in Hollywood was able to distribute about 500 doses earlier this month. Pastor Dr. Eric Jones said they had 800 people wanting to be vaccinated. Jones was able to arrange for the distributing working with his son, Democratic State Senator Shevrin Jones, the state's emergency management agency and Gov. Ron DeSantis' office.

Jones expects those 500 people will be coming back for their second shot in the weeks ahead.

"Hopefully they're not going to have people lining up out here during that time with no vaccine," Jones said.

Jones received his second vaccine shot Tuesday.

When his church distributed its initial batch of doses, it was open to anyone.

"We have folks as far as from Boca Raton and Delray Beach calling," he said.

Rabbi Eliot Pearlson with Temple Menorah in Miami Beach said his synagogue worked with the city to alert elderly members of vaccination opportunities.

"[The city] called Temple Menorah because we're usually at the forefront of reaching out to the community when in need," Pearlson said.

Jackson Memorial Hospital also contacted Dr. Abdul Samra, the imam at the Islamic Center of Greater Miami, last week. The mosque was given 150 vaccine appointments according to Samra, and it received over 300 requests. He said the appointments were filled on a first-come, first-serve basis for people who met the eligibility requirements.

"We try to spread the word and make sure we spread awareness to our communities about the importance of the vaccine," Samra said.

That communication role is recognized by the faith leaders as essential, not only for their communities of worship, but more broadly.

"Our health care professionals, our government, our faith-based community, leadership — we have to figure out ways to reach out to that very specific group that needs it the most," Pearlson said.

Jones pointed to his church's livestream, small services and phone calls to help get people informed about the virus and vaccines.

'Dubious Honors'

Thousands of people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in South Florida this week. Hundreds are hospitalized as the virus continues spreading and at least one new strain has shown up in Florida.

"Proportionately speaking in Florida, we have a very significant load," said Dr. Aileen Marty, an infectious disease expert at Florida International University. Miami-Dade has the fourth most confirmed cases in the country by county and the seventh most deaths, according to the Coronavirus Resource Center at John Hopkins University. Marty calls those "very dubious" honors.

South Florida continues to experience more than a third of cases in the state — as it has throughout the pandemic — yet the region has vaccinated fewer than a third of all those receiving the vaccine, according to the state Department of Health.

"It would be much better if the vaccine distribution matched the risk," she said.

As the virus continues spreading throughout South Florida, the median age of those catching it has dropped to about 40 years old.

The state also leads the nation with 46 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant of the virus. However, there may be more. The variant is more contagious.

"We don't know how many variants there really are in South Florida. We don't know what percentage of our people have the variants in South Florida because it's not part of the routine (testing) process," Marty said.

The Health Gap

Even as the effort to vaccinate Floridians has been met with limited supply, enormous demand and sometimes confusing messages, it also has been uneven.

Black people in Miami-Dade County account for 8% of the total confirmed cases and 17% of the deaths, but only 6% of those vaccinated. The disparities exist in Broward and Palm Beach counties as well.

Dr. Zinzi Bailey, a social epidemiologist at the University of Miami, sees the inequities falling along "existing lines." She described the gap as "bringing to the fore all the elements of structural racism."

She also pointed to the similarities between vaccination distribution and testing efforts.

"What we learned during the testing process was that people who don't have health insurance have a fear of the hospital, perhaps because of previous experiences, discriminatory experiences or if they're undocumented — [they] are not going to be accessing our health system. And it's not going to be a primary line of defense for marginalized communities," Bailey said.

Stay Connected
Verónica Zaragovia was born in Cali, Colombia, and grew up in South Florida. She’s been a lifelong WLRN listener and is proud to cover health care, as well as Surfside and Miami Beach politics for the station. Contact Verónica at <a href="mailto:vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org">vzaragovia@wlrnnews.org</a>
Tom Hudson is WLRN's Senior Economics Editor and Special Correspondent.