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500 Escambia residents get COVID vaccine Sunday, part of state pilot to test rollout

Annie Blanks
Pensacola News Journal

About 500 Escambia County residents were among the first in the general population to receive the COVID-19 vaccination on Sunday morning, thanks to a pilot program initiated by the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Florida Department of Health intended to test how the vaccine rollout will look on the ground. 

The residents, all aged 65 or older and mostly minorities, were recruited by the state for the vaccine this past week through their churches and other grassroots community efforts. The pilot program happened Sunday morning in Escambia County and at least one other Florida county, according to Eric Gilmore, the county's interim public safety director. 

Sign-up link:Escambia residents age 65 and older can now sign up for COVID-19 vaccine. Here's how.

"Duval County is doing this today, and three or four other counties are doing it later in the week," Gilmore said. "The state chose this day and they chose this site. It's a pilot site to work out logistics and give feedback on how we can best roll this out on a bigger scale once more vaccines are available." 

Victor Smith gets ready to receive the Moderna vaccine Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, during the Florida Division of Emergency Management's vaccination point distribution at Brownsville Community Center. After the vaccination, participants waited up to 15 minutes for observation by medical professionals.

The residents who were pre-approved to receive the vaccine came to the community center with vouchers and consent forms on Sunday morning. Community Health of Northwest Florida workers handled intake, and a team of vaccinators from Ascension Sacred Heart, Escambia County EMS, Baptist Healthcare and a Florida strike team handled the actual shots. 

The National Guard also was on hand to help with data entry. 

Details sparse:Pensacola hospitals urge patience as COVID-19 vaccination order raises questions

C. Marcell Davis, a pastor at Adoration for a New Beginning Church on West Government Street in Pensacola, said he was contacted by Commissioner Lumon May last week to help find people in the community to receive the vaccines. 

Davis said he got several people at his church to sign up, many of them people of color. 

"We really wanted to encourage the minority community to get the vaccine, and make sure they are comfortable with getting the vaccine," Davis said. "If the African Americans don't get vaccinated, that could lead to an epidemic just in our community, so I really wanted to encourage people who were 65 and older to sign up for this today. I want to encourage the marginalized community to trust the process." 

Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an executive order on Dec. 23 mandating that all Florida residents aged 65 and older will be the first in the general population to receive the vaccine, after health care workers and other first responders. 

“From the beginning of the COVID-19 public health emergency, Governor DeSantis has directed the Florida Division of Emergency Management and Florida Department of Health to continually find ways to provide resources directly to underserved communities," said spokeswoman Meredith Beatrice in an email to the News Journal. "As part of this ongoing endeavor, today, the state of Florida launched a pilot program to reach and administer the vaccine to minority and underserved populations across the state by working with community centers and churches. The Brownsville Community Center is the very first site Florida partnered with, and we look forward to expanding this program in the coming weeks.”

"We're at war, this is a war" 

Mai Lien stood behind her wheelchair-bound mother, Pham, in line at 8 a.m .Sunday, one of the first people in line to receive the vaccine. 

Mai is not 65 years old and could not get the vaccine, but she wanted to get her 82-year-old mother vaccinated as soon as she could. 

Pham Lien gets ready to receive the Moderna vaccine Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, during the Florida Division of Emergency Management's vaccination point distribution at Brownsville Community Center. After the vaccination, participants waited up to 15 minutes for observation by medical professionals.

"She's been home since late March, but I just want her to be able to have this security blanket," Mai Lien said. 

Mai Lien said she had no hesitancies about the vaccine's safety or efficacy after seeing other community leaders get the vaccine themselves. 

"I feel good about it since they've given it to first responders," she said. "They're not going to give it to first responders if it's going to hurt them." 

Paulette Brown, who lives in Beulah, said she heard about the vaccine through her church. 

Paulette Brown gets the Moderna vaccine Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, during the Florida Division of Emergency Management's vaccination point distribution at Brownsville Community Center. After the vaccination, participants waited up to 15 minutes for observation by medical professionals.

Brown said she was "a little nervous" to get the vaccine, but weighed the pros and cons and decided it was worth it for her health, especially after having several acquaintances die from COVID-19. 

"It's all so new, and who knows what the long-term effects are?" she said. "But I'm going to get (the vaccine) because I don't want to get COVID." 

Victor Smith said he heard about the pilot program through Davis, his pastor at Adoration for a New Beginning. Smith, who is 73 years old and a lifelong Pensacola resident, said getting the vaccine is a no-brainer since he also got the flu shot and a pneumonia shot late last year. 

Victor Smith gets the Moderna vaccine Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, during the Florida Division of Emergency Management's vaccination point distribution at Brownsville Community Center. After the vaccination, participants waited up to 15 minutes for observation by medical professionals.

He said a lot of his friends and family members are not getting the vaccine because of their personal beliefs, but after doing research he felt that it was best for him to get the shot. 

"There are still a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about it, but you have to do your own research," Smith said. "We're at war, this is a war. It's going to take all of us working together to get this done. The vaccine is the first step and protecting our community and winning this war." 

Annie Blanks can be reached at ablanks@pnj.com or 850-435-8632.