Some Black Floridians Have to Travel 30 Miles to a Publix for the COVID Vaccine

“This is not even taking into consideration those people who are field and/or mill workers who already sun up to sun down (some 7 days per week).”
January 28, 2021, 7:01pm
A customer wears a mask outside a Publix supermarket, Saturday, May 30, 2020, in Orlando, Fla. Many businesses have reopened during the new coronavirus pandemic.

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The majority-Black residents living in Belle Glade, Florida, have to travel up to 25 miles to get a COVID-19 vaccine. For those living in Pahokee, it’s a 27-mile trip. And in South Bay, people would have to go 32 miles. That’s how far the nearest Publix is.

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The grocery store chain has been put in charge of distributing the precious shots in Palm Beach County on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ orders. But the mayors of those three largely non-white, impoverished Florida cities in the county say the locations are too far from their residents. And that’s if they can even find the time in their busy days. 

“This is not even taking into consideration those people who are field and/or mill workers who already sun up to sun down (some 7 days per week) then have to try to work out how to add a 2-3 hour (or more) block of time into their day to get to and from a vaccine site 30+ miles away,” South Bay Mayor Joe Kyles, Belle Glade Mayor Steve Wilson, and Pahokee Mayor Keith Babb wrote in a letter to DeSantis Tuesday. 

They’re urging the governor to come up with a new plan—one that takes their communities into account by partnering with pharmacies that have locations in their cities. 

The mayors’ concerns that their communities are being left behind is an emerging theme of the nation’s troubled COVID-19 vaccine rollout, since white people are being inoculated at higher rates than people of color in several states. People living in the rural farming communities of Belle Glade, Pahokee, and South Bay, known together as “the Glades,” are largely Black and Hispanic. And poverty rates there are around three to four times the national average, according to government data. 

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“Now, the only way for many of these people to obtain the vaccine will be to use public transportation to travel some 30 miles, possibly with a small child or children in tow, wait in line, then make the return 30-mile trip again via public transportation,” the mayors wrote in their letter. 

And they aren’t the only officials slamming the state partnership. Publix will soon become the county’s sole vaccine distributor, according to WPEC, a local CBS affiliate, although the county is still administering shots to people who had scheduled appointments. The county’s supply is expected to run out in early February, at which point Publix would be entirely handling the distribution.

Earlier this week, Palm Beach County Commissioner Melissa McKinlay said she was “absolutely disgusted” with the state’s decision to take that authority from the local health department, according to the Palm Beach Post. 

Alina Alonso, who directs the county's health department, said Palm Beach County was the only place in the state so far where all vaccines were going to Publix, according to the South Florida Sun Sentinel

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Jason Mahon, a spokesman for the Florida Department of Health, said in a statement to VICE News that there are 67 Publix locations in Palm Beach, and that “90% of all seniors live within less than two miles of at least one Publix.” 

“Publix was willing to open every location for the vaccine and was the first partner ready locally to deploy the vaccine to the broader senior population,” Mahon said. He added that the state will continue to identify other locations for vaccine administration, like places of worship, in underserved communities. 

Palm Beach County Mayor Dave Kerner, a Democrat, has said the Publix partnership has helped his county outperform its neighbors in the state, according to the Palm Beach Post. 

Publix did not immediately respond to VICE News’ request for comment. The company said in a statement posted to its website Tuesday that its pharmacies were administering the vaccine at 261 locations in Florida counties.

“Our collaboration with Governor DeSantis continues to bring needed vaccine doses to residents of Florida, and we are privileged to be part of this critical effort,” Publix CEO Todd Jones said in the statement. “With each new shipment of the COVID-19 vaccine, we are able to serve more people and more communities in our home state.”