U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor met with community health officials Monday morning to discuss the vaccine rollout and how to best educate veterans and people of color within the Tampa Bay Area about how they can obtain one.
“There’s no secret that this has been entirely too chaotic,” Castor said about Florida’s vaccine rollout. “The groundwork is being done. We have a particular focus in this very diverse community on an equitable and fair rollout.”
Dr. Kevin Sneed, dean of the University of South Florida College of Health Taneja College of Pharmacy, has been working since the summer to educate underserved members of the Black and Latino community as the director of the program WE-CARE, which stands for the Workgroup Enhancing Community Advocacy and Research Engagement.
Since the start of the pandemic, Sneed said the group has had more than 30 virtual informative sessions and has worked to educate and answer questions from other local non-profits and leaders.
“We let them know that people of color across the entire spectrum of races and backgrounds have been involved in oversight for the vaccine development and distribution into many communities,” Sneed said.
REACHUP, a local non-profit that provides assistance to pregnant women of color, has also worked to help spread information on the vaccine throughout the pandemic.
“We understand those hesitancies, and we know that there’s a huge trust issue,” said Lo Berry, REACHUP CEO.
Deborah Austin, the director of REACHUP community outreach, emphasized that information on the vaccines and other facets of the virus must come from a person who the community knows and trusts, pointing to Sneed.
“These are people who care about us, these are people who would not put our lives in danger,” Austin said. “These are people who want us to live.”
For Tampa Bay veterans, the James Haley VA Hospital has been vaccinating its most vulnerable since Dec. 21, said David VanMeter, interim director at the hospital. The rollout started by vaccinating veterans 85 and older, and just last week, moved to start vaccinating veterans 75 and older.
There are about 25,000 veterans 75 and older in the hospital’s coverage area, and so far, VanMeter estimates they have vaccinated upwards of 4,000. The VA is calling, emailing and sending out letters to eligible vets in order to amp up vaccination efforts.
The VA has also vaccinated about 3,000 staff members, said Dr. Sandra Gompf, chief of infectious disease at the hospital.
“It’s so important — this is this is the way we end the pandemic,” Gompf said. “These vaccines are absolutely crucial, and they’re better than what we hoped for.”
Castor concluded the meeting on a hopeful note, nodding to the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden and his vaccine rollout proposal.
“We’ve got to pull together and get this done,” Castor said. “As we see the vaccine rollout, it’s going to get better.”