JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The expansion of the role Publix Supermarkets plays in Florida's vaccine distribution plan shows no signs of slowing.
As the state is set to hand over all Palm Beach County vaccine distribution to Publix in a pilot program, leaders in minority communities are calling attention to a lack of access.
Since Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced the state's collaboration with Publix Supermarkets to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine in early January, the program has expanded to 261 locations in 20 counties.
On Tuesday, the director of Palm Beach County's health department told commissioners there that Publix would be taking over all vaccine distribution in the county as part of a new pilot program pushed by the state.
"We're the only county where all this vaccine is going to Publix, until [Governor DeSantis] chooses other counties to do this," said the county's health director Dr. Alina Alonso while addressing the commission.
Commissioner Melissa McKinlay led opposition to the plan, noting her district stretches into the far western portions of Palm Beach County where heavily-minority communities bordering Lake Okeechobee are without a Publix pharmacy.
"I am absolutely, absolutely disgusted," McKinlay said. "The governor of this state has 100 percent taken the ability to vaccinate our residents in Palm Beach County out of the hands of our public health officials and our medical officials and given that authority to a corporate entity."
McKinlay also added that neighboring Hendry and Glades counties are lacking Publix pharmacies entirely.
During the meeting, the county commission agreed to write a letter to Governor DeSantis in opposition to the plan.
Neither the county nor the health department provided comment for this story.
If the pilot program expands, as the state has indicated it will, local leaders in minority neighborhoods in Duval County have expressed concern about access.
The most economically disadvantaged neighborhoods in Jacksonville, largely communities of color like the Northside, Westside and Northwest Jacksonville, are almost entirely lacking Publix locations.
"You've got two Publix [locations] on the Northside, only one of them has a pharmacy and that's the one over in Oceanway," said Dr. Rogers Cain, a physician who practices on the Northside.
"The lack of access is definitely skewed towards the less affluent communities. Being available just at Publix magnifies this," Cain added. "Whether it's intentional or unintentional racism, that's what's occurring."
Cain noted that many patients who visit his practice take public transportation, and that many people living in economically disadvantaged areas are limited by time and financial means to travel far for a vaccine.
"The Publix [locations] aren't in our neighborhoods," said State Senator Audrey Gibson, whose district covers these areas.
"Publix Supermarkets have not traditionally been in communities of color anyway, and the one we did have they closed it, saying they didn't make enough money," Gibson added, referencing the now-closed Publix location at Gateway Town Center off Norwood which has since become a Winn-Dixie. "Clearly you're missing an entire community of people."
DeSantis dismissed critics who alleged a connection between the choice of Publix to play a large role in distribution of vaccines and a $100,000 donation made by the supermarket chain to the Governor's political committee last year, a story first reported by the Miami New Times.
"It's not the promotion of Publix itself," Gibson said. "It shows Publix is supportive of the Governor, whose vaccine distribution is a debacle. To me, it's more pandering to the demographic that Publix generally serves."
First Coast News received statements from both Publix Supermarkets and the office of Governor DeSantis. The statement from the Governor's office implies that the Palm Beach pilot program will be expanded:
"In Palm Beach alone, there are 67 Publix locations and 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.
"To supplement these efforts, the Division and the Florida Department of Health continue to identify places of worship and other locations in underserved communities where the COVID-19 vaccine may be administered. To date, the Division and the Department of Health have supported COVID-19 vaccine events at 19 places of worship statewide and administered more than 10,000 vaccines through these one-day vaccination clinics.
"Second doses at these places of worship will be administered within the time frame recommended by the CDC. The state is continuing to identify places of worship across the state to ensure that all individuals 65 and older have access to this resource.
"The state is looking forward to continuing this pilot program, and the program is expected to expand as the state continues to receive additional vaccine allocations."
Publix also defended the program, adding that high demand from customers for the vaccine has greatly outpaced supply:
"We work with the Governor's Office to determine which counties/Publix Pharmacy locations will offer the vaccine. The Governor has focused on communities that have a larger population of 65 and older, more rural and/or do not have existing distribution programs that are effectively working to serve a particular community.
"Our goal has been and continues to be to assist our communities and neighbors in returning to some type of normalcy. It is a privilege to assist our seniors in receiving the vaccine. As you might imagine, it is a supply and demand issue currently. There is far more demand for the vaccine than supply. For instance, we had approximately 37,350 vaccines available this morning that were reserved in 90 minutes. The demand is greater than the current supply. For every appointment there were at least 10 customers trying for the same one. Another opportunity will be available this Friday."