MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) - When Governor Ron DeSantis gave sole distribution of coronavirus vaccines in Palm Beach County to Publix, it created a problem for predominately Black farming communities neighboring Lake Okeechobee because there are no stores close by.
The mayors of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay sent a letter to DeSantis this week saying their seniors have no access to the coronavirus vaccine. They asked him to expand the county's distribution network as it will be impossible for many senior residents in their towns to get their shots. Some say that is a problem in poor communities statewide.
They want Florida to set up distribution sites in more low-income regions like it is doing in other parts of the state. DeSantis, for example, held a news conference Wednesday to announce that two sites would be set up in primarily white senior communities near Tampa and Orlando.
In Belle Glade and its neighboring communities, about 5,000 of the combined 32,000 residents are 65 or older, according to the Census Bureau, and the median household income is about $26,000. That is right at the federal poverty line for a family of four.
"Why should folks in the Glades community have to drive 35, 40 miles to get the vaccine? Everybody don't have a Publix," said Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson on Wednesday. He said his region has Walgreens and CVS drugstores that could be used. "You are talking about seniors, 65 or older, who may not be able to drive."
County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents the area, said she fears DeSantis will put Publix in charge of distribution in the nearby rural counties of Hardee, Hendry and Glades even though the chain doesn't have stores there, either.
"I am happy that Publix is involved, but it shouldn't be the only one," she said. "I don't understand."
Publix declined to comment Wednesday on vaccine distribution in the Belle Glade area, referring questions to the governor's office.
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DeSantis said Palm Beach County signed off on the Publix plan two weeks ago, as about 90% of its seniors live within a mile and a half of a Publix, by far the state's largest grocery chain and a major donor to DeSantis's political action committee. There are 67 Palm Beach County Publix stores distributing the vaccine, but it does not have any stores in the county's northwest corner.
The Black community in Palm Beach County is grossly underrepresented among its vaccine recipients. Overall, about a third of the county's 375,000 seniors have received at least their first dose, according to the State Health Department. But only 3% of the county's vaccinations have been given to recipients who registered as Black, well below the 20% of the population they comprise. The actual percentage of Black recipients is likely somewhat higher as about 1 in 6 who received shots in the county did not list their race.
County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat supportive of the Republican governor's pandemic efforts, noted Palm Beach County has a higher percentage of its population vaccinated than either Miami-Dade or Broward counties. Since the outbreak began, the county has recorded 103,000 coronavirus cases and 2,125 deaths. The state has recorded 1.7 million cases and 25,600 deaths.
On Tuesday, President Joe Biden announced he would boost the supply of doses being sent to the states by about 16%. The state Health Department said it expects to get 307,000 first doses. In addition, the state expects 254,000 more booster shots to arrive to help complete the inoculation of the nearly 1.3 million Floridians who have already gotten the first of the two-shot vaccination regimen.
But vaccine access has been a concern among advocates for the poor and communities of color statewide. Some say the Belle Glade issue should cause state officials to re-examine whether all Florida residents 65 and older have easy access to the vaccine.
"We need to make sure there are additional efforts put in place to ensure there is equitable distribution in low-income communities and communities of color so we don't see disparities continue," said Miriam Harmatz, the executive director of the Florida Health Justice Project.
(© Copyright 2021 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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