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Florida expands vaccine program in minority communities

February 25, 2021 GMT
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Clients line up for COVID-19 vaccines at the newly-opened drive up site at the Wal-Mart store in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The site is as part of the company's initiative to vaccinate underserved communities considered vulnerable to COVID-19. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)
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Clients line up for COVID-19 vaccines at the newly-opened drive up site at the Wal-Mart store in Lauderdale Lakes, Fla., Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021. The site is as part of the company's initiative to vaccinate underserved communities considered vulnerable to COVID-19. (Joe Cavaretta/South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP)

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — Florida will open coronavirus vaccine sites in six underserved minority communities around the state, Gov. Ron DeSantis announced Thursday, responding to criticism that such neighborhoods had been previously skipped.

DeSantis also said he expects that Florida will be able to expand the list of who is eligible for a vaccine in March and is optimistic that by some time in April, inoculations will be widely available as more vaccine becomes available.

Currently, Florida restricts the vaccine to residents 65 and older and frontline medical providers such as doctors and nurses. The state has said it soon expects to start vaccinating teachers and police officers who are 50 and older.

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About half of the state’s 4 million residents 65 and older have been vaccinated. DeSantis said about 3 million of them want the shot.

“We are going to lower the age as soon as the seniors are taken care of,” DeSantis said during a news conference at Edward Waters College, a historically black school in Jacksonville. It will have a vaccination site along with another historically black school, Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, Broward College and community centers in Miami-Dade and Osceola counties.

DeSantis said the sites will be modeled after one opened recently in the Palm Beach County town of Pahokee. The governor received criticism earlier this month after he announced that the Publix supermarket chain would be that county’s sole distributor of the vaccine. That left the predominately Black farming communities of Pahokee, Belle Glade and South Bay near Lake Okeechobee isolated as they are at least 25 miles (40 kilometers) from the nearest Publix.

DeSantis said the discrepancy was brought to his attention by his lottery secretary, John F. Davis, who is from the Belle Glade area.

Those areas “don’t have the retail pharmacy, they don’t have the health care infrastructure, so we brought it,” DeSantis said. The state set up a site where that area’s seniors could get vaccinated. “We said, ‘You know what, we should just make this permanent here but then replicate this model in other parts of the state.’”

DeSantis did not want to give specific dates for when the vaccine program will be expanded and then widely available because there might be unexpected delays like last week’s disruptions caused by extreme bad weather throughout much of the country.

“The next step, for the general population, is to lower the age but I don’t want to say we are going to be able to do it next week if I don’t know what the vaccine situation will look like,” DeSantis said.

The state has had nearly 1.9 million cases since the first was reported nearly a year ago. More than 31,000 have died. Over the last six weeks, the number of cases reported has fallen from 17,500 per day to 5,700 — that’s about where the state was in mid-November, before a spike driven by Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holiday gatherings.

Deaths remain at about 150 per day — that’s down from about 190 per day a month ago, but still well above the 42 per day reported in early November. On Thursday morning, 3,954 people were hospitalized in Florida with COVID-19. That’s down from more than 7,600 who were hospitalized in mid-January.

About 2.8 million Floridians have received at least one dose of the vaccine — that’s about 12% of the population.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.