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Tampa Bay steps up effort to get COVID vaccines into minority communities

More people of color are getting shots, but racial disparities persist. Pinellas County has a task force working on the issue. So does Hillsborough

ST. PETERSBURG — When it became clear early on that the COVID-19 vaccine rollout wasn’t reaching communities of color, Rev. Kenny Irby got a call. The Pinellas County health department wanted his church, the oldest African American congregation in the city, to host a pop-up vaccination event.

Since then, Black churches across the area have been working to boost faith in the vaccines, with educational events and pastors rolling up their own sleeves for shots. The effort has shown results as the percentage of Black Floridians inoculated against the coronavirus has increased.

“That population is very close to their pastors,” said Carl Lavender, the chief equity officer at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg. “They trust their pastors. They trust their churches.”

What happened in the churches has provided a template as local health departments start reaching deeper into communities to get people vaccinated. In Pinellas, that has taken the form of a health equity task force, charged with increasing vaccination rates in underserved areas across the county.

“It’s been a tremendously positive grassroots effort,” said Irby, pastor of Historic Bethel AME Church in St. Petersburg and a task force member.

By mid-April, 15 percent of Black residents in Pinellas had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, up from 9 percent a month earlier, according to a health department report shared with the task force.

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