Miami Black leaders launch vaccine campaign to counter hesitancy after J&J pause

The impact of the two-week pause by federal health officials of the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine is still being felt in the Liberty City area, where Congresswoman Frederica Wilson spoke Tuesday at the site of a makeshift cemetery memorializing the lives of Black Miami-Dade residents lost to COVID.

The “Get out the Vaccine” rally at Simonhoff Park, 1850 NW 54th St., was the congresswoman’s fourth press conference at the memorial, which she views as a collective grieving site. After her remarks, Wilson said the Johnson & Johnson hiatus dealt a blow to efforts to convince hesitant Black Miami-Dade residents to get vaccinated.

“I think it hurt a lot,” Wilson said. “That’s why you hear me saying, ‘Moderna,’ and I’ll say it with conviction. I think that was a huge, huge hiccup, in the whole rollout for President Biden.”

Overall, Wilson praised Biden’s efforts to vaccinate the country quickly. She told the Miami Herald that a mix of hesitancy, lack of access to transportation and some degree of procrastination is partly to blame for lingering disparities in vaccination rates between majority-Black ZIP codes and other parts of the county.

A Miami Herald data analysis from late April found that vaccination rates were lower in communities where people lack access to vehicles and health insurance. It followed Herald reporting that the state’s emergency management division, in charge of distributing vaccines, failed to mount an effective outreach campaign for Black residents or make the most of its partnership with the federal government.

In the midst of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine hiatus, Alix Desulme, a councilman from North Miami, said the J&J pause had set back efforts in his city to combat vaccine hesitancy.

“Everybody became a doctor on WhatsApp,” he said. “Now you have to start over.”

Dr. Dwight C. Reynolds, who is board certified in emergency medicine, urges members of the Black community to get vaccinated. On Tuesday, May 4, 2021, Congresswoman Frederica S. Wilson held a press conference to announce Get out the Vaccine Week in District 24 at the makeshift Memorial Cemetery at Simonhoff Park in Miami, Florida.

Adding to the hesitancy

Wilson was one of 10 Congressional Black Caucus members to meet with President Joe Biden in April, shortly after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

“We talked about the Johnson and Johnson debacle,” Wilson said in an interview after the April meeting. “We know that it’s going to add to the hesitancy.”

By April 23, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food & Drug Administration lifted the pause, saying the benefit of the vaccine far outweighed the risk. The agency added a warning label.

On Tuesday, Wilson said she was hopeful that the Pfizer vaccine being made available for school-aged children would help convince their parents to get the shot as well. In Broward County, public high school students 16 and up could get vaccinated on campus, starting this week.

Beyond hesitancy, Wilson said there is a fundamental issue of access in that many people in her district are too busy working to drive to a vaccination site.

“We need to get [the vaccine] to the people who are the most sheltered, who don’t watch CNN, who don’t watch MSNBC, who could care less about who Dr. Fauci is,” she said on Tuesday. “They work hard, and because they have been continually working and nothing has happened to them … they just feel they can continue to do that. But that’s something that we need to help them understand that’s not acceptable.”

To reach all corners of Miami-Dade, Wilson is working with Trevor Brooks, the CEO of a startup medical company WorldSafe1st that has been working in Miami Gardens. Brooks, whose company uses Black nurses and doctors to vaccinate people to help reduce mistrust, said he is working with both the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines.

Brooks said he’s heard a mix of feedback about the vaccine, but added that he has no supply issues. He said he is working from a list of people provided by the city of Miami Gardens on mobile vaccination efforts at various housing complexes.

“We have to have success,” he said. “Because if we don’t, we’re going to have a long-term problem.”

John Pate, the city manager of Opa-locka, said in late April that it was harder for working people to commit to two doses, rather than the single J&J shot.

“They’re required to go out and work,” Pate said. “I don’t think they have the luxury to work from home.”

Miami Herald Staff Writers Alex Daugherty and Nicholas Nehamas contributed to this report.