Investigative Reporter Katie LaGrone explains how deceptive campaigns are proving to be as difficult to stop as the coronavirus itself.
At the Institutional Church in St. Petersburg on Wednesday, pastors from a number of area congregations cried foul over racial disparities and the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We’re talking about availability and accessibility,” said Rev. Dr. Wayne Thomas. “I want my people to get the same thing I was able to get."
He recently received the first dose of the vaccine.
Blacks and Hispanics are, reportedly, up to three times more likely than white people to die from COVID-19, yet recent data shows minorities are getting the vaccine at less than half the rate.
Access to the vaccine and limited supplies is just one of the problems.
“That’s really the key driver of all the challenges is the supply issue,” Lt. Governor Jeanette Nunez told us recently when asked about the disparities among minorities.
But University of Miami Chief of the Division of General Medicine Dr. Olveen Carrasquillo fears once supplies increase over the next few months, the bigger threat to minorities will remain disinformation, the steady stream of lies and conspiracies circulating online.
“Unfortunately, what we’re hearing is that they’re being very effective at convincing people with all sorts of wild and crazy theories not to get the vaccine and that’s what really scares me,” Carrasquillo said.
Dr. Carrasquillo, a national expert on minority health and disparities, is also part of a statewide coalition trying to increase minority access to the COVID vaccine while trying to educate and encourage Blacks and Hispanics not to be afraid to take the vaccine.
In one video he showed us, a Black woman falsely claims that 100 people in the UK were paid $100,000 to take the vaccine and all of them died after getting the shot. In another video, a Hispanic man tells his audience to listen to an American doctor make claims about the vaccine, which are false. He describes the information as “this may well be the most important feature you will ever see in your life.”
It’s unknown where the videos were produced but the images and the false messaging are being directed at minority populations.
“You see the Latino accents in the people so it sounds like they’re Latino. The African American female starts with god bless and she looks like your typical grandmother, the person in your family that you go to for advice and suggestion,” Dr. Carrasquillos said. “They’re very well done.”
Vaccine reluctancy has been a problem, especially among minorities.
The state’s Division of Emergency Management recently started working with some churches to help administer and encourage minorities to take the vaccine. But the program is limited and churches that participate are limited to 500 vaccines. Many churches who want to participate, can’t because supplies are so limited.
We’ve learned Florida has allocated $1.6 million for a PR-blitz to help combat misinformation and increase vaccine acceptance among minority communities. Representative Anna Eskmani, a Democrat who represents Orange County, recently questioned if the money was enough.
“$1.6million is probably not going to do it,” Eskamani said.
Dr. Carrasquillo is also skeptical that the state efforts are too generic to make an impact on Blacks and Hispanics who are hesitant.
“When you see the brochures, they’re very generic. They don’t address the very nitty-gritty stuff,” he said referring to some specific religious beliefs certain minorities have been told about the vaccine.
Or, in the Latin community, there’s fear among women that the vaccine will make them infertile.
We showed one of the videos to Rev. Dr. Thompson at the Institutional Church in St. Petersburg. After watching the minute-long video Reverend Thompson said, “I think that’s a bunch of junk.”
Thompson said a few members have expressed concerns about the safety of the vaccines. But he believes, the bigger battle remains vaccine access which minorities across the state are still fighting for.
“They can put all the misinformation out there that they want to but when they see people getting the vaccination, that’s going to turn it all around,” Reverend Thompson said