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Faith leaders applaud DeSantis' vaccine initiative targeting churches in underserved communities

"It will definitely be an effective way of spreading consciousness around the virus," Rev. Kenneth Irby said.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — A new initiative Gov. Ron DeSantis announced this week aims to get more vaccines into underserved communities by partnering with local churches.

And at least one St. Petersburg pastor is looking forward to a clergy-clinician partnership that could save lives in communities struggling the most.

"Faith leaders, I think, have a responsibility to instruct their flocks, their congregations, those who look to them for guidance--to be aware of this vaccination and this opportunity to blend faith with action,” said Rev. Kenneth Irby, pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Under DeSantis’ new plan, church and state will come together. DeSantis said in a press conference Monday the state will target places of worship that can help distribute vaccines in underserved communities. 

The details have not yet been worked out, but local churches say they are ready to support.

"Our larger African American churches are obvious locations,” Irby said.

Bethel A.M.E. is the oldest African American church in St. Petersburg and is in a zip code with the second-highest COVID-19 rate in all of Pinellas County. Irby says that makes for a unique opportunity to reach the community. Other pastors in the area said they are also optimistic about possible partnerships.

Dr. Jay Wolfson of the University of South Florida applauded the governor’s announcement but added that significant resources will be necessary for the plan to work.

"...How are we going to take those boxes of vaccines, each have a bunch of vials in them that each have a barcode on them? How are we going to get those into the community and out to individuals without creating more confusion distraction and disappointment?" he said.

If all goes according to plan, Wolfson says this would be a shining example of what public health is all about.

“This is going to be a public health effort at its best already,” he said, adding that the burden should not fully be on hospitals. “The hospital should not be involved in spearheading the vaccination program because their job is to provide critical care to sick people, not to go out into the community and do prevention education and wellness promotion and vaccination. 

“That's a public health function.”

City leaders in Tampa and St. Petersburg say they are waiting for more direction from the state but are already identifying churches that would be good fits.

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