In one Florida community, enrolling people for coronavirus vaccines, one conversation at a time

The need is acute in Florida: The state has the greatest prevalence of a fast-spreading virus variant first identified in the United Kingdom. The emergence of variants globally has added to the urgency of getting as many people as possible a shield of protection against the pathogen.

That task is especially crucial in communities of color, where the virus has carved a vast path of destruction during the past year. Communities like Belle Glade, where Jackson-Moore’s quest to enroll people for vaccination opens a window onto street-level efforts unfolding nationwide.

Jackson-Moore, who has lived in the town for 30 years, knows everybody she meets or knows somebody who knows them — friends, kin, co-workers. In a town of fewer than 20,000 people, there’s a good chance she has a connection. Lately, she has been using it to get coronavirus shots to older residents in Belle Glade, where the conversations ring with the familiarity of a family chat in a city in which 3 of every 5 residents are African American.

In Florida, local leaders like Rev. R.B. Holmes Jr. and Tammy Jackson-Moore are striving to encourage their communities to take the coronavirus vaccine. (Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)

“Miss Mary? Miss Mary, how you doing, baby? I want to talk to you,” Jackson-Moore says as she walks up to Mary Walker, playing with her grandson in the front yard.

Jackson-Moore — who is co-founder of Guardians of the Glades, an advocacy organization that works to improve the health and well-being of Glades-area residents — is wearing a sequined black mask that sparkles in the Florida sunshine.

“Have you taken your vaccine yet?” Jackson-Moore asks Walker. “Do you want to take it? No? Why?”

“God’s going to deliver me,” Walker says.

“Okay, all right,” Jackson-Moore says. “I was just asking. If you want to take it, I want to get you on the list, so we can make certain we’ve got a vaccine for you. But you keep wearing that mask, all right? Put that mask up over your nose.”

Jackson-Moore knows how far to push her message, so she leaves it at that. Then, she turns her attention to Walker’s grandson, 11-year-old Marcus Perkins.

“You know about covid, right? What do you know about it?” she asks him.

“You get sick, and either you die, or you get very, very sick and have to go to the hospital and maybe have cancer,” Marcus answers.

“You want to keep yourself safe from covid, right?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“So I want you to go inside and get your mask and put it on when you come outside, okay?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

The vaccine rollout in Florida has been beset by missteps. In December, Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) ordered that anyone in the state 65 or older could get a coronavirus vaccine, but the state didn’t give local officials precise guidance on how to administer it. County health department phone lines were swamped, websites crashed, and senior citizens in some counties with first-come, first-served distributions camped out overnight to be in line for a shot.

DeSantis was subjected to more criticism in January when he ordered a pilot vaccination program in Palm Beach County, where Belle Glade sits. The program made Publix grocery stores the primary vaccination sites in the county. The nearest Publix store to Belle Glade is more than 25 miles away.

Jackson-Moore and the Guardians of the Glades activated their network to get the governor to reconsider.

“We were steadily putting it on our Facebook page, we had a letter-writing campaign going, saying having vaccines only at Publix was not sufficient for this community,” she said.

Public pressure mounted, including from Glades native and NFL star wide receiver Anquan Boldin.

DeSantis reversed course, opening up vaccine distribution sites in the Glades.

The county is one of Florida’s coronavirus hotspots. Palm Beach County has recorded 117,231 covid-19 cases, third-highest in the state behind Miami-Dade and Broward counties. It’s second only to Miami-Dade in covid deaths, with 2,394 as of Sunday. Last summer, Belle Glade was a hotspot within a hotspot. Cases spiked and deaths accelerated.

“Every day, we would look at the numbers, and the numbers would be more and more frightening,” Jackson-Moore said. “I was handing out masks and sanitizer, we were practicing social distancing.

“It was so frightening that if I would see people gathering in a group, I would get so frustrated. I’d just walk up and break up the group and say, ‘Don’t you understand what’s happening?’ ”

This farm town on the southern shore of Lake Okeechobee is flanked by sugar cane fields and sod farms. Belle Glade, where 42 percent of the population lives in poverty, is only 43 miles from Palm Beach — directly west of Mar-a-Lago on State Road 80. The median income in Belle Glade is $24,901; in West Palm Beach, the county seat a half-hour away, $51,635. In Palm Beach, it’s $133,026.

Jackson-Moore, 53, helped start Guardians of the Glades four years ago to try to make sure Belle Glade and nearby farm towns were in the conversation when county leaders made economic decisions.

“Often times, we have people in our community that maybe have concerns, or they have ideas, but for whatever reason, they’re intimidated,” Jackson-Moore said. “So we’ll fight for them.”

If that means going back and forth to West Palm Beach for meetings, she’ll do it, as she did in early January for a county covid-19 update.

“With our community, we just seem to feel that, if you’re not at the table, then you’re on the menu. So we always want be at the table, so they don’t forget about us,” Jackson-Moore said.

Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay, who represents Belle Glade, said the work Jackson-Moore does is critical to getting Glades residents vaccinated.

“She’s a trusted face, and she’s well-versed in how to get things done for the Glades,” McKinlay said. “She knows what she’s talking about, and she won’t take no for an answer.”

Jackson-Moore will take a maybe if she has to.

“I want to encourage people to be safe, and to get the vaccine,” said Jackson-Moore, who received her first dose of the Moderna vaccine in mid-January. “I’m that cheerleader for those on the fence.”

As she rounds a corner on a street near the Belle Glade public library, she goes up to the house where her aunt and uncle live.

“Uncle Calvin!” she calls out to the man in the driveway washing his pickup truck. “You get your shot yet?”

“Well,” says Calvin Bowens, 73.

“You going to do it? Don’t you tell me no.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Bowens says. “I was trying to find information about getting the vaccine.”

Jackson-Moore answers all of his questions. She shares her experience with getting her first dose: “My arm was a little sore, but probably just because I was sleeping on my side.”

Bowens agrees to get vaccinated.

“I’ll put you on the list, and I’ll call you tonight or tomorrow with the time for you to go to Lakeside Hospital and you can get your shot,” Jackson-Moore says. “What about Aunt Vera?”

“I don’t know,” Bowens says. “She’s kind of in between.”

Jackson-Moore walks to the next street. After she knocks on a few doors without being answered, Jackson-Moore sees her Aunt Vera driving by, and flags her down. Vera Bowens says she’s hesitant about the vaccine because of what she has been hearing on TV and the radio.

“You know, you hear things,” Vera Bowens says. “You just don’t know what to believe some of the time.”

“Like what? You got to stop listening to all that gossip,” Jackson-Moore tells her. “Let me put you on the vaccine list.”

Bowens hesitates.

“Biden got his first dose,” Jackson-Moore says on that January day. “I got mine. See, I’m fine. Joe Biden’s fine.”

Bowens agrees to get vaccinated.

Jackson-Moore got up to 150 Belle Glade seniors to sign up for vaccines in her first week of door-knocking. She went to the hospital to be there when they showed up for their shots.

“I want them to see a familiar face, so they know it’s safe,” Jackson-Moore said.

Her vaccine appointment work has to pause when food distribution comes up. Since the coronavirus hit, Guardians of the Glades has worked to get food to people who can’t afford it.

“We have people who have lost their homes because they lost their jobs. They haven’t been able to pay their lights and water,” she said. “We had one lady, she said they had just [repossessed] her car last night, and she had to find a way to come and get food, because she didn’t have any.”

Jackson-Moore drives across town to the outskirts of Belle Glade, where a neighborhood sits on the border of a vast sugar cane field. She knocks on a door.

“How you doing? I’m here about the vaccine,” Jackson-Moore says to the woman who answers. The woman opens the door just wide enough to talk to Moore.

“Oh, we already got the covid,” the woman says, rattling off the names of four relatives who also have the virus. “They told me I can’t get the vaccine yet because I just tested positive.”

Jackson-Moore asks for details of the dates and explains when the woman is eligible for a vaccine.

“Oh, I’ll get it when I can,” the woman promises, coughing into a tissue. “I’ll call you.”

Jackson-Moore asks her if she needs anything else, and if there’s enough food in the house, and then she says goodbye, and goes to the next house. An elderly woman lives there. She has posted handwritten signs on her door: “Please cover your face.”

“Hi, remember me? You know my grandmama. I’m Doris Ellick’s granddaughter, remember?” Jackson-Moore says to the elderly woman as she peeks out of her front door.

Jackson-Moore’s grandmother died 10 years ago, but the connection still holds. The woman says she will consider getting a vaccine.

“Sometimes, I’m just stressed because I’m so worried and concerned about people and what they’re not getting,” Jackson-Moore said. “What’s the fate of somebody if they get sick? If they pass, how is their family going to be impacted?

“I just want to be able to get to the point where we can take these masks off, and we can congregate again and have barbecues and family reunions.”

The arrival of the vaccine has been one of the only bright spots in a year of suffering, she said.

“It’s like, poof, we woke up one day, and we had to immediately change our lifestyles.

“The vaccine is giving people hope, finally. But it’s not over yet. We’re not at the end of this yet.”

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