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Keeping an eye on COVID-19 vaccination disparities

Lisa Ferdinando

As Florida residents continue to receive COVID-19 vaccinations, the racial disparity among those who have access to the shot becomes more and more obvious. There is data which shows four-to-one vaccination rates among Florida’s white population versus persons of color throughout the state.

Poor and marginalized communities continue to see an alarmingly disproportionate number of deaths due to COVID-19as well. So, communities like Immokalee have come together to respond to the crisis on their own.

A group of local organizations, including Partners in Health (PIH), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Healthcare Network (HCN) and Mision Peniel launched a partnership last summer with a mission to expand COVID-19 testing.

Dan Palazuelos is a physician and the technical lead for Partners In Health’s work in Immokalee.

“We have worked in a variety of countries in Latin America--including Mexico, Haiti, Africa, and in Eastern Europe,” Palazuelos said. “We started to work in the United States in response to the COVID pandemic. First, with a concerted effort to form the contact tracing collaborative in Massachusetts, along with Governor Baker. Then, after winning an audacious grant award, we started to provide free advising in accompaniment to health systems and departments of health across the United States.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, poor and marginalized communities have been disproportionately impacted in cases, deaths and vaccinations. After one year of living with COVID-19, Dr. Palazuelos says the pandemic has brought to light other issues that make survival harder for people in these communities.

“That includes access to all the social support, contact tracing, [ultimately] testing and then vaccines. And also the question of why mortality [still] has been and still is, disproportionately elevated in Immokalee,” Palazuelos said.

“Some of it has to do with what we call the social determinants of health and disease, and that's the really unfortunate socio economic condition that people live in. They really do just hover above extreme poverty; they are incredibly hard working--[and] but yet, they really live paycheck to paycheck, often supporting families in other countries who themselves are suffering extreme poverty. The diets tend to be poor, housing tends to be poor, and I think people then, that just puts them in a very vulnerable position.”

Palazuelos said one thing is certain: efficient communication is indispensable for helping vulnerable populations through a health crisis.

In collaboration with other organizations, Partners in Health has been able to help provide a massive and rapid rollout of vaccinations in Immokalee. He believes the pandemic is starting to turn a corner, but only if we continue doing more of what has been working.