PALM BEACH COUNTY, Fla. — Calling it "unacceptable" and "unconscionable," the mayors of three western Palm Beach County cities are urging Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to find a more convenient way to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine than through Publix.
According to health officials, 67 Publix pharmacies throughout Palm Beach County are now the primary way for people to get vaccinated in the county.
Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb, and South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles sent DeSantis a letter on Tuesday, saying it's incredibly difficult for residents in The Glades region to travel to Publix to receive the vaccine, citing the long distance and lack of transportation.
The mayors said that for Belle Glade residents, the closest Publix is 25 miles away, 27 miles away for Pakokee residents, and 32 miles away for South Bay residents.
"In more affluent communities, none of those distances would be a barrier to getting the vaccine; people would simply get in their vehicles and drive to the Publix nearest their homes," the letter read. "For Glades residents, however, many do not own vehicles of their own but walk everywhere they go."
The mayors called that lack of transportation a "formidable barrier" that's preventing residents from getting the COVID-19 vaccine.
"The only way for many of these people to obtain the vaccine will be to use public transportation to travel some 30 miles, possibly with a small child or children in tow, wait in line, then make the return 30-mile trip again via public transportation," the letter read.
The mayors strongly urged DeSantis to create a new plan that provides "convenient vaccine access to rural, outlying areas." They also suggested having the state partner with CVS or Walgreens, which are more accessible to residents in The Glades, to distribute the vaccine.
"This is simply unacceptable, and quite frankly, unconscionable. Placing such a barrier on an already vulnerable, highly underserved population cannot be allowed to happen," the letter read.
READ THE LETTER:
Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, whose district covers The Glades and other western Palm Beach County communities, admonished the governor's Publix distribution plan at Tuesday's county commission meeting, saying many western neighborhoods fall into a "vaccine desert."
"We're moving all of this into the hands of Publix, and yet when you leave Loxahatchee Groves, the Publix that's located there, you have to travel 108 miles until you get to the next Publix on State Road 80. That's in Lee County. That's in Lehigh Acres in Lee County," McKinlay said.
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McKinlay added there are large pockets throughout Palm Beach County where residents don't live in close proximity to Publix stores that have a pharmacy.
"Yet [DeSantis] has decided that the best people to distribute the vaccine and to make it available to the residents in our county is a private corporation and not the health officials in this county," McKinlay said. "I commend Publix and their willingness to be our partner, but they should not be the ones in charge."
The Publix vaccine appointment system has come under fire recently, with registration slots filling up with seconds of going online, leaving many residents frustrated and unable to get vaccinated.
On Wednesday, new appointment slots opened at 6 a.m. and were completely booked an hour later.
"The nearest Publix is about 20 to 25 miles east of the Glades area," said Tammy Jackson-Moore, a community activist in the Glades.
Jackson-Moore is outraged, saying many people in western Palm Beach County don't have access or the ability to travel 20-plus miles to receive the vaccine.
"We do know there will be people who will get ill because they can't get the vaccine, and some of them may expire because they can't get a vaccine and have access to it that can potentially save their lives," Jackson-Moore said.
Speaking in Vero Beach on Tuesday, DeSantis defending the Publix distribution plan in Palm Beach County, saying he met with Mayor Dave Kerner and other county officials weeks ago before rolling the system out.
"We told them about Publix. They were like, yeah, bring that here. We think that will be good, cause they have so many seniors that live so close to Publix," DeSantis said.
The governor claimed that 90% of senior citizens in Palm Beach County live within a mile-and-a-half of at least one Publix.
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According to the latest numbers from the Florida Department of Health, 137,523 people have received the COVID-19 vaccine in Palm Beach County, which is second only to Miami-Dade County, where 161,868 people have been inoculated.